Heavy hands #15minutefable

‘Ow!’ said his wife as he thumped her around the back of the head in what had been an affectionate pat in front of the television. ‘When did you get so clumsy?’

It was a good question. He was, indeed, becoming clumsier. This wasn’t the first time his hand had collided with something with unintended force. Bottles of milk had been sent crashing at the breakfast table. The end of the gear stick had come off in his hand while driving the car. He was on his third computer keyboard in two months; the other two had been returned to the shop, their letters mashed down into the plastic surface, deserted by other letters that had come away altogether and made their escape.

And he had noticed something else, too. The sleeves of his shirts were moving up his arms. Working from home, as he did, he did not often wear shirts with unrolled sleeves, but he had attended an awards dinner two nights ago, and had found the sleeve of his formal dress shirt sticking resolutely above his watch. It used to cover half his hand.

He had not mentioned this to his wife. And she did not pursue the accusation of clumsiness – the television programme they were watching was more interesting to her than the state of his….

Well, the state of his what? His arms? His hands? His general wellbeing? But the more he thought about it, the more his arms felt different, as if they belonged to somebody else, as if the signals he was sending them were no longer being received in the customary way.

He hadn’t written a usable word in weeks, either. Everything he put down through his poor abused keyboards was stale or obvious or just ordinarily boring. While he clattered through the house knocking things over his mind wandered over its incapacity, worrying away at it the way he might worry at a loose tooth.

‘Loose tooth!’ he said to himself. ‘What a tired image.’

So he went to the doctor. He’d been seeing the same doctor for years, and they had become sort-of friends, in the sort-of way one can only ever be friends with one’s doctor. His friend checked his blood pressure, listened to his chest, but most of all he talked to him.

‘How’s the writing going?’

‘Terribly. I’m in a rut.’

‘Hmm. Wait there.’

The doctor went out and came back with a device about the size of a small plate, covered in a silver plate, with an LCD screen at the front.

‘Isn’t that a kitchen scale?’

‘It is. Now, put one of your hands on it, please.’

‘But that’s silly. It can’t weigh my hand accurately, because it’s supported by….’

‘Do I tell you what you can and can’t do as a writer?’

‘Of course you do. Everybody does.’

‘Well, fair enough. But trust me. This is medical stuff.’

So he put his hand on the scale, the doctor read off the display, and nodded his head.

‘Just as I thought. You’ve got heavy hands.’

‘Heavy hands? What kind of condition is that?’

‘It’s not a condition. It’s a metaphor.’

‘It’s a…. What?’

‘It’s a metaphor. You’ve got heavy hands. You can’t write, and you knock things over. You are clumsy, maladroit and generally incompetent around things, people and words.’

‘But, how did this happen?’

‘Overuse of imagery, would be my first guess. That, and a general tendency to use ten words when three would do.’

‘Is there a cure?’

‘Normally, I’d advise a course of high quality mainstream television where the dictates of art are subservient to entertainment and commercial interests. But you need something stronger. I’m putting you on a course of Elmore Leonard. Effective immediately. ’

The Home Secretary #15minutefable

The Home Secretary liked to fight crime on Thursday evenings, unless it was particularly cold or particularly wet, and then he would skip it and do some paperwork instead. But if the temperature was right and the air was dry, he would take his special outfit – black suit, black polo neck sweater, black boots and black balaclava, dropped at the dry cleaners by his wife every Friday morning – and march out into St James’s Park.

There was always some crime or another that needed his attention. There was a lot of stuff that waspetty but annoying, the type of thing that voters found irritating but not terrifying – littering, dog mess, mildly anti-social behaviour of the shoving-and-shouting kind.

But then there were the muggers, who brazenly infested the park under the eyes of the Palace itself, stepping out from behind trees and demanding wallets and phones in oddly polite voices. When he saw one of them, he would hide himself behind a different tree and wait for them to conclude their business. Then he would step up behind them and accost them, identifying himself as ‘Chief of Police’ (this was his crimefighter name, and it was also, in its way, the truth) in a voice so firm and terrifying that they surrendered themselves immediately.

He’d catch three or four muggers like this every Thursday night. They didn’t always surrender, and they weren’t always polite – some of them swore at him, and on one memorable evening he was forced to use his Chief of Police Stick, a kind of umbrella made especially for him by James Smith & Sons. He took this umbrella everywhere he went, to meetings at the palace and to sessions at parliament, and nobody suspected that it was in fact a kind of cudgel. So when this particular mugger swore at him in the park, he was surprised to be struck about the head with an umbrella, only realising on impact that the umbrella was heavy and solid and skull-threatening. The mugger did not get up again. Ever.

At the end of his busy night, the Home Secretary would go back to his offices and change out of his black uniform. The next morning, he would call in his special advisers, and talk about Britain’s Mugging Problem.

‘It’s getting worse. Much worse. Why, I caught a half-dozen last night alone,’ he said. The special advisers, all of whom had been dressed as ‘muggers’ the night before in the long-standing tradition of their team, looked at each other. ‘I’m announcing a new initiative. Mandatory five-year terms for first offenders.’

‘But, Home Secretary,’ said the most senior special adviser, who had been pretending to be a mugger on Thursday evenings for three years. ‘Our research shows a steep fall in crime of this type.’

‘That has not been my experience,’ said the Home Secretary, firmly, his special umbrella leaning against his thigh.

‘But, Home Secretary, the plural of anecdote is not….’

‘You’re fired,’ said the Home Secretary, and they moved on.

 

Mindfulness class #15minutefable

His mind was full of ‘destructive thoughts’ (his phrase) so he went to a mindfulness introduction course and spent five hours thinking about this. ‘Give me fifteen minutes every day,’ the instructor said, so he did. Fifteen minutes a day, sitting in a chair, scanning his body to shut out his destructive thoughts (‘no it’s not about shutting them out, it’s about observing them in order to let them go,’ his instructor said, but he struggled with the difference).

On the first day, as he scanned down his body as he’d been told to do, he noticed an odd tight feeling in a place he’d never really thought about before, above and to the right of his groin, below his stomach. Perhaps sitting in or on his pelvis somewhere. He noticed it and paid attention to it. It felt like he’d swallowed something in an odd way, sitting there below his stomach. It felt about the same size as fifteen minutes, roughly the same size as a poem by Andrew Marvell.

On the second day, the odd sensation had changed. Now, it felt about the size of half-an-hour, perhaps three or four of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It didn’t have any shape or size or visible signature at all, but it was as solid as a banana under his skin, as present as metal.

He continued with his meditating. Each day he scanned down his body, and each day he came across this growing element there within him. It grew by the same amount each day, about fifteen minutes, twisting and turning as it went, and it different times it was ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘In Memoriam’ and Macbeth and Frankenstein and Paradise Lost and The Quiet American and then one day it was more than two thousand minutes long and for a while he couldn’t identify it and then he realised it was Ulysses sitting there on his pelvis, as solid as a banana, as present as metal.

After becoming Ulysses, the feeling split into two, as if there were two bananas down there, though there was still no outward sign of what was happening to him. Ulysses was joined by a Wilfred Owen poem, an Aesop fable, a Euripides play, The Iliad.

And on it went, the shape splitting and reforming, until there was a shelf, a bookcase, a wall and then a library sitting down there, above his pelvis, as solid as a banana under his skin, as present as metal. He walked around with a canon below his navel.

But his thoughts were as quiet and still as a millpond on a summer’s night.

A scene from Starbucks in England

A friend told me this anecdote the other day, and it’s plausibly brilliant.

SCENE: a Starbucks somewhere in England, soon after the coffee chain started asking for people’s names when they order coffee. It’s fair to say this innovation has not sat well with the English. A line of people are waiting to order coffee.

CUSTOMER: A latte, please

SERVER: Certainly. Can I have your name, please?

SERVER holds market pen over cardboard cup. CUSTOMER squirms uncomfortably. There is tension in the queue, broken only by a voice from its rear.

UNKNOWN CUSTOMER: Don’t tell him, Pike.

 

A lovely day on the Estuary

Anyone who’s read my books will know I have a bad case of the Thames. It’s a very particular strain of the disease, too. You can keep your picturesque stretches alongside the Houses of Parliament, or your genteel meanderings around Kew and Chiswick. No, for me, the real river is wide and grey and ugly and starts at Tower Bridge. It winds up and down and east and west before opening out into the immense skies of the Estuary. Give me Canvey Island over Chelsea, Sheerness over Sheen, any day of the week.

So last week it was an enormous pleasure to board a ship and travel down from Tower Bridge and out into the North Sea and back, via Gravesend, Southend and Sheerness; to sail over the great naval mustering point at the Nore, to see the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery peaking above the waves, and, most of all, to witness the same sunset skies heading back into town as must have once enraptured Turner.

Here’s some pictures from the journey – the first of which I claim no credit for. But I did want to show you the beautiful vessel on which we sailed, and I didn’t get a decent picture myself.

Click on any of the pics to open a nice big gallery viewer.

 

Helen Lewis on Lena Dunham

Helen Lewis is a fantastic writer, and this piece on Lena Dunham is brilliant on the media and celebrity as public performance. This was the key paragraph for me:

As with Mad Men before it, Girls holds an importance for columnists and writers of trend pieces which far outstrips its reach. The third-series premiere in January was watched by 1.1 million viewers in America. (To put that in perspective, the Christmas special of the BBC’s cross-dressing Irish sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys was watched by 9.4 million. And when did you ever read a think-piece about Mrs Brown’s Boys?)

via New Statesman | Lena Dunham is not real.

When did you last read a think-piece on Mrs Brown’s Boys? And isn’t the absence of such things a telling error of the middle-class-captured-media?

Setting the stage for a new book

My fourth book has gone to my agent, and I’m starting to lay the foundations for the fifth. This one will be entirely different. The first four books form a series, telling the tale of constable Charles Horton and his strange encounters with crime and detection and all sorts of very odd stuff in early 19th century London and beyond.

(As an aside, the American academic Miriam Burnstein’s written really perceptive practical criticisms of the first three books, which explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to do. Honestly, it’s like she’s opened the top of my head, Locke & Key-style).

The next one isn’t like that. It’s going to be historical fiction, but without the weird stuff and without the crime. Well, it will have crime in it, but of a political kind. And no, I’m not saying anymore right now.

I’m knee-deep in research at the moment, but while I’m walking the dog and pondering the book I’m thinking about how to tell this story. What’s the point of view? What’s the voice? Is it a Babel of viewpoints, or is it a single voice? So far, all my books have had multiple viewpoints, and I’m leaning very much towards trying just one.

But even if that decision is made, what kind of viewpoint will it be? First-person or third-person? Reliable or unreliable? Contemporary or historical? Self-aware or deluded? Etc etc etc.

Two works of art are very much on my mind while I think about these things. The first is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which I finished very recently and which is quite remarkable. The level of skill shown by the author is mesmerising, not least because it’s the least showy book I’ve read in a very long time. ‘If it looks like writing, I cut it out,’ Elmore Leonard said, and there’s something of that in Atkinson’s writing too. But the apparent simplicity belies a narrative sophistication and control which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

The other work of art is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sort of. This morning, a friend of mine linked to Steven Soderbergh’s site. I’m an enormous fan of Soderbergh – I admire his skill and his talent, but I also admire his commitment to art and his absolute integrity. If you’ve never read his speech on the state of modern cinema – and why he stopped making films – you really should.  On his site, he talks about something he calls staging:

I’m assuming the phrase “staging” came out of the theatre world, but it’s equally at home (and useful) in the movie world, since the term (roughly defined) refers to how all the various elements of a given scene or piece are aligned, arranged, and coordinated. In movies the role of editing adds something unique: the opportunity to extend and/or expand a visual (or narrative) idea to the limits of one’s imagination—a crazy idea that works today is tomorrow’s normal.

How does he illustrate what he means? Through the brazen method of taking Raiders of the Lost Ark, removing all the audio track, replacing it with a really awful stock EDM thing, and changing it to black and white. The result is startling – you notice, for the first time, the staging. The arrangement of the actors, the lighting, the perspectives, the relationship between the frame and what comes into it from outside. It’s really fascinating. Take a look.

So now, I’m not thinking about voice and point-of-view. I’m thinking about staging. Because how a scene is ‘aligned, arranged, and coordinated’ is exactly the nut I’m trying to loosen. Trust Soderbergh to give me an interesting tool to go at it with.

Bloody Good Reads: The Undertaker’s Daughter

About halfway through Kate Mayfield’s beautiful memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter I asked myself: have I ever read a memoir before? I’ve read autobiographies, of course, and although there’s no ISO definition to delineate memoir from autobiography it would surely have to distinguish between the celebrity that makes us want to buy an autobiography from the voice that makes us want to read a memoir. Reading this lovely book, I came to the conclusion that I have read memoirs, only they’ve been fictional ones. To Kill a Mockingbird is a memoir. So is Catch 22. So are several of Dickens’s novels. It’s just that, to a greater or lesser extent, their stories are made-up ones.

And it helped, in many ways, to think of The Undertaker’s Daughter as a novel, because for this experience of a genuine memoir I was in the decidedly odd position of knowing the author. I met Kate on a trip to Hogarth’s House in Chiswick some years ago, and she is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) a very striking person to meet, particularly in that odd little residence by the side of the A4. She is always exquisitely turned out, she is always smiling, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent as warm as hot chocolate. And she has always been generous and kind to me. So take what I am about to say here as you will, but it is honestly meant.

Kate Mayfield grew up in a funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, and The Undertaker’s Daughter tells the tale of that growing up. It also, in its way, tells the tale of America’s civil rights movement, but those words are never used, because it is the experience of a white child becoming a white woman in a still-segregated community that is the tale here. Kate’s father, the undertaker, was a complicated man and also a fantastically hard-working and focussed one, and his alignment with one of the grandes dames of Kentucky is one of the narratives that drives the book along. The stories are full of hairdressing and gowns and big cars and card games and gossip, and like a very good period novel, The Undertaker’s Daughter drops us into 1960s Kentucky until we can smell the gardenias in the air and feel the hairspray on our faces.

But that isn’t what makes this book exceptional. What makes it exceptional are its secrets, which unfurl with terrible deliberation – Kate’s secrets, her father’s secrets, the secrets of any family but particularly a family such as this, one with access to the darkest moments in people’s lives, and one which lives in such an oddly heightened position in the community. This is where my experience of the book may differ from yours because, as I said, I know Kate. So some of the revelations in this book hit me in a different way to how they would hit a stranger. I found myself admiring Kate’s bravery and her insistence on being truthful.

And more than anything, I admired the writing, which is exquisite. The pacing of the book (those unfolding secrets, again), but also the poetry of the words. And in between each chapter, Kate has inserted a little story, collectively called In Memoriam, of a single death in Kentucky. Over the course of the book, the dead and the ones they left behind fill the pages, until Kentucky is paradoxically alive with these people and their stories. I still feel, weeks after finishing the book by the banks of the Loire, that I could step out of my front door and out onto the streets of Kentucky, and watch Frank Mayfield drive past in his Henney-Packard ambulance, old lady Miss Agnes sitting in the seat beside him dressed entirely in red, and everyone looking up as they go by.

The mysteries of the dead

This story cross-posted from Medium – you can read it there if you’d prefer.

Stories, history, evidence and fable fill the little patch of London earth called ‘Cross Bones’

There is a patch of bare ground in the London borough of Southwark, on the corner of Redcross Way and Union Street. It is behind a pair of gates which must have looked terribly ordinary when they were first erected, but are now hung with a motley collection of notes, drawings, flowers and hand-made objects.

The ground behind the gates looks like any one of thousands of unoccupied spaces in London, another lacuna in the planning process, a piece of dead space represented by a piece of ignored paper in a dusty council office somewhere or other.

But this dead space is here because it has been filled with something else; it’s been filled with a story.

This is the last remaining piece of the old burial ground which at some point in the past three hundred years became known as Cross Bones. London is pockmarked with these little dead spaces – they are dead both literally and figuratively.

But Cross Bones is different, because here, people say, was a burial ground for prostitutes, the old Winchester Geese as they were once known. These messages on the gates are for those unnamed women, and a great many of them are from modern women wishing to pay homage to the awful existences of so many who went before them.

When I started writing my third novel, its title was Cross Bones, and the story began here at this oddly resonant little space. It opened with a young woman watching the burial of an infant, while she herself was watched by another, older, woman, who then led her away.

It was a conscious reimagining of the opening chapter of Great Expectations, but with female rather than male characters. It was to set up the rest of the book, which would be about the awful crimes visited upon women by Regency men – by mad-doctors, by magistrates and most of all by wealthy men pursuing lives of selfish pleasures.

But history’s stories don’t stay in one place. They slip around in your hands like a fish pulled from a stream. When I started doing my research, the picture changed. So much so that I became less comfortable with Cross Bones’ position at the heart of the novel. The title became Savage Magic and though the themes remained the same, the places changed in order and priority.

Was Cross Bones actually a burial ground for ‘single women’, in the old euphemism? Was there any evidence for this?

I learned that there is quite an industry that has built up around the story of Cross Bones; its evocative past has conjured poems, stories, walks, talks, campaigns and books. But what is all this built upon?

Very little, it turns out. But sometimes, very little is all you need.

Documentary research

Part of Cross Bones was excavated in 1992 as part of the London Underground Jubilee Line extension – the excavation is documented in a Museum of London Archaeology Service monograph, and there’s also data on the Museum of London’s own website.

As is the way of these things, the archaeologists were only able to dig where the existing buildings and the planned redevelopments allowed them to dig. The Jubilee Line needed a new electricity sub-station, and it was going to sit within part of Cross Bones. The area excavated was 35.7m by 19.1m, and the archaeologists dug down to 3.1m – which, as it turns out, is not very far at all.

Only the bodies in this area were disturbed. The rest are still there.

Before they began digging, the archaeologists did their desk research and checked the documented history of Cross Bones. There isn’t much of this. It was known from these sources that the site was an ‘additional burial ground’ for the church of St Saviours (which is now Southwark Cathedral). This ground was never consecrated.

When Southwark Priory was dissolved in October 1539, the ancient parishes of St Mary Magdalen and St Margaret were merged to form a new parish: St Saviour’s Southwark. The new parish was between London Bridge and Lambeth Marsh, and was surrounded by the parishes of St Olave’s to the east, Christchurch to the west and St Thomas’s and St George’s to the south.

St Saviour’s Parish contained seven burial grounds in the 19th century, only three of which were operated by the parish authorities. These were: the churchyard of St Saviour’s; the St Saviour’s Almshouse burial ground in Park Street; and Cross Bones.

The non-parish burial grounds were Deadman’s Place on Park Street, probably once a plague ground; the Baptist burial ground in Bandy Leg Walk, now part of Southwark Bridge Road; and two Quaker burial grounds, one on Ewer Street and one on O’Meara Street.

The Museum of London archaeologists noted in their monograph that Cross Bones had a ‘long-established tradition’ as a burial ground for ‘single women’ – the euphemism for prostitutes – who worked the stews of Bankside. John Stow, in his Survey of London of 1598, says as much, as does a book, The Annals of St Mary Overy, from 1833, which talks of ‘an unconsecrated burial ground known as the Cross Bones at the corner of Redcross Street, formerly called the Single Woman’s burial ground, which is said to have been used for this purpose’.

The trouble is, there’s no other real evidence for this. These are the only sources the archaeologists mention. The story may just be a result of the burial ground remaining unconsecrated, which is bound to get imaginative hearts pumping. But, say the Museum archaeologists, this may just have been a legal matter. The land was held on a lease from the Bishop of Winchester, and it was customary only to consecrate freehold land.

What is pretty clear is that by the early 19th century Cross Bones was the parish poor ground – the place where the church buried anyone not rich enough to pay for their own funeral. A plain coffin was provided without ceremony, and people would “sell their beds from under them sooner than have any parish funerals”, according to the secretary of one burial society. Bodysnatchers plagued these parish poor grounds such that iron railings had to be put up and even the coffins themselves made stronger. The resurrection men made pretty free with the dead of the Borough.

Cross Bones was a parish poor ground in a very poor parish. The population of St Saviours parish at the start of the 19th century was just under 16,000. In the liberty of the Clink (one of the three sub-divisions of the Parish) most of the properties were held on only lifelong leases, an enormous disincentive to development and maintenance which led to the place becoming a slum. Once again, leaseholds dictated the people’s stories. It cost a penny a night to stay in a lodging house, and there might be 20 people to a room. The old wooden houses on Ewer Street were livid with vermin. Water was taken directly out of the river, and infants were fed ‘pap’ – a mixture of flour or breadcrumbs mixed with this water. Infection, unsurprisingly, was rife and wide-ranging.

The skeletons

These, then, were the poor people buried in Cross Bones. In 1992, the archaeologists took 148 skeletons buried over 10-30 years in the mid-19th century out of the Cross Bones ground. The awful truth, to modern eyes, is this – fifty of these skeletons are perinatal. They are the bodies of stillborn babies or babies who died a few weeks after their birth. Another 17 of them are of children who died aged under a year. In total, a hundred skeletons, or two-thirds of the total, were of children aged 11 or under.

These numbers are high, even for London; almost twice as high as a similar dig at St Bride’s on the other side of the Thames. As I did my research, I noted another fact; that there were more adult women than adult men buried in Cross Bones. Almost twice as many, in fact. Might this be a statistical proof of an awful fact? Might it demonstrate that prostitutes buried their poor dead children in Cross Bones, before they themselves were laid to rest in the same soil?

But one needs to be careful around stories like that, and thankfully archaeologists are a good deal more careful than novelists. It may just be that proportions like these are properly reflective of a very poor area like Borough and Bankside. Or, more likely, it may just be the nature of the excavation and where the archaeologists were able to dig.

This is not a control group, remember. There may be more adult females than adult men overall – but the absolute numbers are 27 females to 12 men. It might just have been an accidental result of the part of the burial ground where the archaeologists chose to dig.

As for the overall high percentage of young bodies in Cross Bones – there is a grim explanation. London burial grounds were either large pits kept open until they were full, or a series of stacks kept open in the same way. Either way, children and babies tended to be squeezed in at the top, as the most efficient use of space. When I heard this, I couldn’t not think about stuffing socks down into an overfull suitcase.

And because the archaeologists did not dig all the way down to the bottom of these stacks in Cross Bones, the proportion of children was greater. The further down they might have dug, the higher the proportion of adults there might have been.

More than half of the dead children had some form of infection. In the adult bodies there were cases of syphilis, ear and sinus infections, many teeth had decay, and there was a good deal of trauma to bones and joints. There was evidence of rickets in adults and children, indicating a lack of sunlight. Many of the children had iron deficiencies. When the archaeologists examined the vertebrate bones of the adult males and females in Cross Bones, they discovered signs that almost all of them were engaged in heavy work from a very young age: heavy enough and young enough for the signs to have survived a century and a half of burial.

Only three of the bodies had clothing on them that had survived the years. One adult had a pair of boots, the remains of some trousers and a shirt.

Two children had the remands of a shroud; one of them had on a pair of knitted booties.

The end

By the 1830s, Cross Bones was full, according to the vestry committee. The committee said deeper graves should be buried and older bodies put into them; there was even a proposal to raise the burial ground. It was a pattern repeated across Southwark and the whole of London. As the problem of overcrowding got worse, bodies stored in the ‘dead house’ or ‘bone house’ might be left for days rather than just overnight; there is even a story of a woman being left there who was not actually dead.

Cross Bones finally closed in 1853, when a handful of acres were taken in the Brookwood Cemetery founded by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. From that point, pauper burials were transmitted by the Burial Board of St Saviour’s to the Necropolis station at Waterloo, to be taken by train to Brookwood. Two mourners were allowed to attend the burial of each pauper body, to accompany the body from Waterloo and to return. In third-class carriages, of course. The fee charged by the Burial Board was 14 shillings (including the return train tickets) for any deceased aged over 10 years. The cost for under-10s was 10 shillings. You can still see the remnants of the old Necropolis station if you stand under the arches behind the C.P. Hart bath and shower showroom in Waterloo. If you bought your shower from there, imagine those trains full of the dead pulling away only metres above where you first saw it.

Cross Bones was sold as a building site for development in 1883, but this sale was declared null and void under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. Under this Act, construction was only permitted on graveyards if it was an extension to a place of worship. Cross Bones has occupied a strange empty bureaucratic limbo ever since – at least, until the Jubilee Line came along.

But the history of Cross Bones – the popular history – won’t go away. The archaeologists did not dig more than a small proportion of the area; by some estimates, only 1% (which suggests there may be almost 15,000 bodies down there, an extraordinary prospect). And it’s clear that the bulk of these burials took place during and after the population explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But that last detail of the dead – that pair of knitted booties on the skeleton of an infant – shows the power of such images to us. The archaeologists make their careful analysis, file their neutral reports, and cull the narratives they can from sketchy reports. All we are left with is this: no real documentary evidence for Cross Bones having been a ‘single women’s’ burial ground exists, and no archaeological evidence either. What we see is only evidence of hard, even appalling lives.

What was there before this early Victorian burial ground the archaeologists inspected? The documents don’t tell us. The archaeology we have been allowed to conduct doesn’t tell us. All we are left with is fragments, and our own dangerous imaginations.

I will admit to feeling some personal discomfort with the retelling of the Cross Bones story – with its capture by modern storytellers and polemicists. But they are only filling a void, and an evocative and possibly tragic one at that. All we can say is that ordinary people – labourers as much as prostitutes – lived lives of unimaginable cruelty. We honour them, in our own strange way, by telling stories about them, even if these stories might turn out to only be well-intentioned lies.

Bloody Good Reads: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Sometimes, you swallow a book down whole, like a cold beer on a hot beach. It’s sharp and immediate and it goes straight to your brain, freezing it and stimulating it at the same time.

Other times, the book swallows you. You open it at the first page and then, some days or weeks later, you find yourself climbing back out of it again, wondering how you got on with other things – eating, working, sleeping, existing – while this book held your head in its mouth and wouldn’t let go.

The Country of Ice Cream Star is one of those latter books. It’s big (such books tend to be big, which is why I like big books) and it’s brave and it’s fearless and it’s extraordinary. It’s set in a future of unspecified distance, where an unspecified outbreak of a half-named disease has wiped out all of white America, leaving only blacks and Hispanics – and killing even them when they approach the age of 20. The whites that are left are called ‘roos’ and are seemingly invaders who are impervious to the disease.

So far, so dystopian. We’ve seen this movie before. But yet, we haven’t. Because this story is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who calls herself Ice Cream Star. She’s a Sengle. We don’t know why her group are called Sengles, or why she’s called Ice Cream Star. She isn’t going to tell us that. She is going to tell us what happens to her, though, and she’s going to use her own language to do it, a new kind of pidgin English which is part street slang and part something else, something fashioned by children who are having to govern themselves in the face of inbuilt and imminent obsolescence. They have no cultural markers, no books to read or songs to quote. They have only their own stories and their own voices.

And Ice Cream Star’s voice is so unique, so powerful, so poetic that the dystopian vision becomes secondary to her own incendiary genius. The journey she takes is long (600 pages long) and extraordinary and at times we flounder in the face of this strange dialect. At other times it takes us over, until Ice Cream Star’s voice is clear in our heads. As a feat of creative control and stamina, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Holden Caulfield has a powerful voice, and his own hip vernacular, but Holden Caulfield is no Ice Cream Star. If you don’t finish the book more than a little in love with her, there’s something missing from your humanity.

I only know Sandra Newman, the woman who wrote this amazing book, via Twitter. But by God, she was touched by something miraculous when she wrote The Country of Ice Cream Star. It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve read since, I think, Infinite Jest, and that’s not a bad comparison in some ways. Both books can infuriate. Both books could knock down a horse if thrown at its head. And both books contain gigantic worlds and unforgettable poetry.

If you want a big book to swallow you up, and if you want to meet an extraordinary young woman whom you won’t ever forget, read The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gratty for reading; these words is bone.

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