Sex and Sensibility

Writing advice I’ve seen or made up: “When something blocks you, don’t go around the hurdle. Instead, take it on. Write into the block.”

Might Sally Rooney’s hurdle be less of “I am famous and fame chains me”, and more of “How do I justify writing individual lives, love and sex – a novel, in short – when real issues are social, political and planetary?” Rooney’s characters debate this second question on the page. As we know from all the interviews and articles that apparently depress Rooney, she was a champion debater. And yet … do these sound like literary and moral quandaries that readers queue up overnight to get their hands on?

I love the idea of pop-up shops to create, I mean meet, demand. Dawn queues to engage with exchanges about capitalism in the 21st century. Me personally, I moved this novel to the top of my tbr pile. And so I sincerely mean the baking metaphors and the dietary question: Why does her fiction go down so delicious and smooth?

Maybe because Beautiful World Where Are You? leavens the philosophy with the youthful yearning that made Normal People such a confection – intellectually seasoned passion, a bit like Call Me By Your Name but with different proportions of sex to sensibility. (Not irrelevant: both translated to films that embody desire and the desirable.)

Another ingredient in the Rooney cuisine: change over time. Rooney novels, it seems to me, rise and fall in waves rather than (obviously) arcing. The lonely schoolgirl dork blossoms (again) in young adulthood as the popular intellectual. No paths run smooth. Relationships morph. Characters wait a decade or more to recognise longings and then these shift again. It’s unsettled fiction and yet (and so?) it goes down easy.

Flaming Bodies

Impressions after a slow read: itemised wealth and pageantry of 18th century empire; the foregrounded fortunes of a maimed soldier and his seer beloved, book-ended by flaming bodies of the Inquisition. The human cost of building the palace of Mafra. Parades, processions, convoys – the royal entourage, bleeding barefoot novices, press-ganged artisans marched to Mafra, marble slabs of unthinkable dimensions and the hundreds of yoked oxen to cart them inch by painful inch, and stone saint statuary sized by holiness.

An extraordinary evocation of a sweep of history – Portuguese and Catholic in particular, imperial in general. And from below.

Did I think about this as I was reading? Somewhat. But paragraph by paragraph what held me to the page was, for instance, Blimunda hiding in the dark of a ruined convent from a friar intent on raping her. The anecdotes – like Canterbury Tales – that the workers tell each other on the journey. A walk on from history by Domenico Scarlatti. The flying machine, the Passarola, that resembles a giant bird. And the authorial voice, conversational, ironic, irreverent.

What’s the non-gendered, non-abusive term for “masterful”?

Also of course there’s flight – part magical realism, part from historical record, part allegorical – the view from cloud level over a country and epoch.

As a reading experience, this was far from the short sharp frisk of the modern literary fiction I’ve been reading lately. After Kevin Barry, for instance, I had to shift gears for the extensive paragraphs. Lengthy ropes of unattributed dialogue. Lists. The vista is a Bayeux tapestry, a Brueghel canvas, flattened and panoramic, but the camera follows the lives of the “lowliest” characters and the narrator makes confidential asides in your ear.

The Maker of Swans


I chose this novel purely because the author is hilarious on Twitter and I was, dear reader, sore in need of amusement just then. But we’re each of us a cast of disparate selves and the Paraic O’Donnell who pens the novel is a different scribe from the card who taps out the tweets @paraicodonnell. (Although they’re equally erudite.) I admit that I read the first few chapters with some resentment, waiting impatiently for the man who calls himself “an incorrigible trollop,” praises other authors for producing “a weapons-grade banger” and, watching the Met gala ‘camp’ red carpet, swears: “Jesus Christ, Sontag must be turning in her slave-built disco mausoleum”. (Whatever that means. Tweets selected this morning at random.)

Reasons to keep Twitter on the mobile even when the news is Too Much: Paraic O’Donnell. mutablejoe. everjoicewin. Yelling for southeastern to please hold the 11:32 to St Pancras so you can make the connection.

Anyway, I got over myself and read the book as is rather than the wit as sought, and it turns out that I can in fact love an elaborate gothic mystery. This one spins allegories of creativity and power. Sports cars and pistols feature, but so do dank Dickensian quays. A gentle gangster is rescued from the maze only to be disembowelled, an Oxbridge don leads a secret society and a glamorous soprano saunters through the library of all wisdom.

I had reservations – discerning the wood from the trees, unnecessary withholding, too many lost girls – but it turns out that someone else (Tim Clare) had already expressed these in a pithy and astute review in The Guardian.

The language though. O’Donnell’s prose is glorious and at the same time highly cinematic, a screenplay in waiting. In a scene on the riverfront – despair, fog, stench, depravity – our protagonist drags himself through an abandoned building:

“He lit a match, when he had collected himself, and cradled it as he looked about the room. The walls were streaked with filth. At their margins, mould bloomed in dark profusion. … Derelict – that was the word. He was derelict or would be soon. He would stand night and day in the unseen weather, sheltering nothing living. … He went last to the room whose light had first drawn him in. … the wallpaper survived in mottled swatches … Behind him, the bulb flared and dimmed.”

Paraic O’Donnell has a new title out this month – The House on Vesper Sands – and I’ll be devouring that, first chance I get. And meanwhile, you know, snorting as I scroll through his feed.

Follow Me to Ground


Provocative. Chilling. So smart.

Before I go any further with these adjectives, I have to come out as a devotee of narrative. For instance, I avoided Keri Hulme’s Bone People for a decade (more fool me) because reviewers described it as ‘lyrical’. Follow Me to Ground, I can tell you, woke me up the morning after with layer upon layer of teasing association and, yes, ideas … but also (crucially for me) the novel had kept me page-turning for the duration, hand-over-hand along the guide rope of story line.

Non-spoiler alert: I’m giving away nothing here about what happens – that deserves discovery. What we have, though, is in part a Cathy and Heathcliff situation. Not out on the windswept moors though. More interior, deeper.

Realist narrative strings us along on the quest for motivation. Sue Rainsford sees us motivation but then raises the stakes. In an era of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation, plus the latest iteration of savage Othering, the novel asks: What is human? What is society? In this modern fable, cars pull up at Ada and her father’s house, but we find ourselves in a timeless, locationless setting beyond the outskirts of town. We leave, with Ada, only a few times via a truck into the woods.

Reading fiction – good, satisfying reading – is like writing fiction in that we’re immersed in another world. (As per Karen M, writer and editor, @highveldstudios.) My own image for this is snorkelling in Lake Malawi – fighting the apparatus for a few gulps and then drifting into a new world. Life above disappears. Brilliant shoals of fish flick direction in unison. Breath turns sonar. Shafts of light stripe through water.

This novel immersed me, but not in water. Rainsford did it; she had me follow her to ground.


You might want to read reviews here and here …

The art of instruction

How to Be a Person? Who shall I be? How ought I to live?

Art is full of questions – answers are for other, more didactic domains. Really? On a spring day at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft I met the typographical prints of Sister Corita Kent, and you could call hers the art of instruction – moral, political, creative.

Corita Kent made and taught art at Immaculate Heart Art College in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s, until the gulf widened too far between her political subjects and the Catholic authorities, at which point she left the convent. (Hie thee from a nunnery.) I learned this from an exchange of letters on display at the Ditchling exhibition: various bishops concerned about Sister Corita’s interpretations of scripture and faith, and by return post the Mother Superior wringing her hands over the moral dilemma: ought she – dare she – stifle Corita’s God-given talents?

How Should a Nun Be?

So: the context in a vitrine. And on the walls, the artist’s pathway. No juvenilia though, no early sketches or tentative watercolours of youth – bang! directly into the prints.



for freedom demands infinitely more care and devotion than any other political system. A. Stevenson




Hard to know if the tiny prints you’re looking at on a phone or computer screen can convey the exhilaration of seeing these works full on, full size and bold – the bleed (as my friend Jane said) of the ink on the paper. What Can Typography Do? Here are answers in colour, form, poetry, slogan, challenge.

How should a (moral) person be? I won’t try to summarise her answers – you need to see them by her own hand. Sister Corita had suggestions, provocations, new icons for the movement. She made work of her moment, of her time and resonant with ours.


We murmured and exclaimed, my friend Jane and I, and we clicked our phone cameras so we could take Corita Kent home with us. Outside, a green Sussex day called us through the museum windows. But first, Jane (an artist and print maker) needed to examine a display of printing presses, forms and trays. So I found the screening room and watched videos of Sister Corita teaching art students, closing the circle: the art of instruction – instruction in making art.

  • She speaks about discipline as related to ‘disciple’.
  • She instructs her students to choose and clip four images for visual content and then find the relationships that emerge. She tells the camera that an assignment frees them, that it’s good to get them to work from the outside rather than in the rut of their own imaginations, until they find their own structures.
  • Do a hundred things, she says. You’ll make twenty that you already have in mind. The next twenty where you don’t know what you’re doing. Then do more.
  • An artist, she says, speaking of beauty, can sing well, think well. But also he can really feel – pain, ugliness, dejection. The fact that he can feel them is a beautiful thing. The ability to feel is a beautiful thing.
  • There is no win or fail; there is only make.

“We have no art. We do things as well as we can.” Sister Corita Kent


How Should an Artist Be? Some answers here.