My friend since school days, Michael Sheriden, has been a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of my scribblings for many years. He has recently written this piece as a response to / review of ‘A Sane Asylum’. It is so interesting [and flattering] that I thought to share it.
Book Review GJM Sheridan 17/07/2017
A Sane Asylum
The following is not, perhaps, so much a review of A Sane Asylum as an informal response.
I enjoyed this novel and I think it is important.
I enjoyed its pace, its intelligence, the engaging accuracy of its well-researched and lively descriptions and characterisations, the skilful and happy melding of the personal and the epochal, its utter lack of heroic sentimentality, its bleak realism, its interest in the human and in human-heartedness.
Its importance, for me, resides in the revelation of the political realities of a region far removed from, but not irrelevant to, the Anglo-centricity of little England.
Its impact has been educational, in that it provokes questions and reveals lacunae, resolutely refusing the soft option of a stated resolution. It is a call to an emotionally mature and informed engagement with a history to which we can offer a small, but hopefully effective, contribution.
But this is to anticipate.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic First Gulf War the author G. J. Martin undertook an odyssey to Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the most dangerous places on earth.
This catastrophe arose as the disastrous effect of at least one notable previous betrayal, that of the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916, which so outraged Colonel T.E.Lawrence that he resigned his commission.
The Arab world was arbitrarily divided up between two colonial powers, Britain and France, with consequences which have redounded to the present day, and which A Sane Asylum exemplifies and anticipates.
The novel is an imaginative reconstruction of that odyssey through the narrative of an investigative journalist, Joe Addison.
He has a four-fold purpose to his odyssey, personal validation, journalistic investigation, a desire to assist a burgeoning democracy, and a response to a request to find a missing person.
Addison is not cast in the heroic mould.
He is well characterised as something of a minor failure in his own eyes. He carries with him the baggage of personal and professional, banal, but hurtful, failures and guilt.
He has a quick intelligence. He is an acute observer. He is quick to see the possibility of an informative similarity or a comparison, and as quick to leave allusion on the coffee table. This is an annoying dispositional weakness, exacerbated perhaps by the physical and psychological stress he finds himself under, and which he does not try to mask in his writing up of his exploits.
To be specific; it is not clear what he thinks is gained by a references to Bentham, Foucault, and the tale of the picaro in Lazarillo de Tormes.
Such is Addison.
His quest is set against the backdrop of a callous world, not confined to the Middle East, of systemic dissimulation, deceit, despotism, danger, anxiety chronic and acute, suspicion, cruelty, ubiquitous surveillance, unknowability and undecidability.
In energetic and economical prose the novel begins with Addison looking through a window, darkly perceiving a reality, the truth of which is soon vouchsafed to him. It is an account of a home-grown exploitative and fraudulent betrayal of vulnerable and aged refugees by a Christian charity, the YMCA.
The quest, initially said to be journalistic in intention, soon comes to centre upon what began as an accession to a minor request to find out about, and perhaps find, a missing and notable person, one Dr.Qadir, who is intimately engaged in the shifting realities of the Middle East.
The narrative moves us skilfully away from these shores into a nightmare of political, historical, societal and cultural dystopia, and no little personal danger to Addison himself, returning at last to Blighty to recount a final bureaucratic and legalistic disappointment.
The title itself is revealed as aspirational and provocative.
Where is the sanity and where the asylum?
And here is where I find the novel most stimulatingly provocative.
Questions, in no particular order, cascade in the problematic of outcomes.
Will Amnesty International, whose very rationale is to furnish health and protection, a sane asylum perhaps, be able to prevent the undoing of Addison’s and Qadir’s attempts to reunite the latter’s family and allow him to continue his work for the newly democratic Kurdistan in safety, in Europe?
Why is the lawyer acting for Qadir a part-timer?
Who would speak for Qadir and his like if there were none to offer to work gratis?
What procedures and structures are in place?
What is the process of appeal?
What will happen to Qadir?
Do we believe any assurances we might be given?
Has Addison achieved anything personally, politically, professionally?
Is there hope for democracy in Kurdistan?
Is democracy possible in Kurdistan?
Historically, how has democracy arisen out of dystopia?
Is democracy always the answer?
Is democracy the answer here?
How long does democracy take?
What types of democracy are there, what type is ours?
How democratic is it?
What is the situation now in Kurdistan?
And elsewhere in the Middle East?
Is there to be a convincing resolution of anything, at any level, ever?
Would an explicit resolution be more convincing, more arresting, than a marking of the Sisyphean taking up again of hope, now, in the teeth of the seeming ineluctability of banal failure?
As intimated above, to its credit the novel refuses to allow us the shallow comfort of a received resolution.
It does not pander to us, nor patronise us.
It presents facts within perspectives and leaves discourse and dialogue open to enquiring adult minds.
It does not absolve us from the responsibility bound up in our humanity.
It will nudge us towards it.
Outrage is an uncomfortable and good thing.
That is, if we have a sense of responsibility, and any humanity at all.
Many have not.
And to have brought us to this place is, I think, a real achievement.
We will be launching my latest novel ‘A Sane Asylum’ at Waterstones Nottingham on June 15th starting at 6.30 pm. I will be in conversation with Eve Makis. ‘The Spice Box Letters’, her award-winning novel, explores the effects of the Armenian genocide. The fictional paths of both writers cross in Eastern Turkey. We will be discussing a journey I made to Iraqi Kurdistan just after the First Gulf War in 1992. I went at the invitation of a colleague and under the notional protection of the new leader of Kurdistan. They were delayed. I went in alone.
I was working as a Writer in Residence in a private school in Surrey when a fellow teacher, an army reservist newly returned from war, dropped his service revolver in my lap and asked me to keep it safe for fear he might use it. On himself. I had no idea what horrors his tormented eyes had witnessed but once I had glimpsed some of what he had seen, once I began to understand the urgency of his need, I readily helped his cause with my only weapon – words.
He told of the Kurdish exodus into the mountains between Iraq and Turkey, the fleeing refugees hounded by Saddam Hussein’s helicopter gunships. The ‘Safe Haven’ had halted the killing but now, in their lack of wisdom, the UK and US protection was to be removed. A resigned commission, television, radio, newspaper even Readers Digest, created a kind of fame and promoted his cause
Originally I was writing a factual piece, reporting back to the BBC World Service. ‘Going In’ went to be published but was set aside as Iraq had fallen out of the news. A number of years later I was encouraged by a news-aware agent to turn the work into a fiction. The plight of the Kurds and this disturbed region is very much in the news now. I hope this novel will offer some understanding of the complex politics of the region as played out in the lives of ordinary people as well as their leaders. It is not simply a political adventure but looks at the ideas of asylum, of refuge, of madness itself.
The world that ‘A Sane Asylum’ portrays is viewed at street level in the bustling cities or in the mountains, amongst the people and their private places. Joe, the
narrator, goes to a wedding, visits a Women’s Group, and talks to his
cook and housemates as well the country’s new leaders in their fledgling
Parliament. He is a reluctant hero. Cynical, realistic, too experienced to hope, he nevertheless goes in search of a missing Kurdish minister at the behest of an anxious wife and her beautiful daughter, acknowledging that what he has agreed to do is impossible. But then, he was hoping to find a sane asylum for himself as he comes to terms with the loss of his mother, wife – his sanity. The quotation that begins the novel, Ezra Pound’s assertion ‘I will not go mad to please you’ is also Joe’s. Ezra ended up in an asylum, Joe in a cell.
The reader experiences the beauty of the vast open spaces, the yellow
mountains and borderless deserts that constitute this Bible land. The
day-to-day struggle to exist is set against the high politics of the
American and British governments. This story is mostly true; the places, the politicians and major players are all real. You could still smell the aftermath of war, with a burnt out tank around most corners, every bridge and telephone mast flattened,
a whole country reduced to ruin.
‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’
We launched ‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ in the Sillitoe Room at Waterstones’ Nottingham store on Friday, October 14th at 7 pm. Henderson Mullin of Writing East Midlands interviewed me. I hope to show some of the exchange on YouTube so those who could not make it can at least get a flavour of the event. Dan Donson, the Events Manager at Waterstones has been tireless in his efforts to promote the new book.
On Wednesday, October 19th, I was in conversation with Alan Clifford on his Radio Nottingham afternoon show. We chatted for half an hour [from 2 pm] and I enjoyed the meeting enormously. Alan has invited me back in the New Year to report on progress.
Mike Smith has written a piece about ‘Patchwork’ and ‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ in the November edition of Derbyshire Life.
‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ is ready. We have already issued a limited edition hardback with gold wibalin and a swatch of silk in the end papers. It contains drawings I made when in India. They have sold out. On Friday, October 14th at 7pm. we launch the paperback at Waterstones’ flagship store in Nottingham. Henderson Mullin, the CEO of Writing East Midlands, will interview me. I will also offer some readings from the book.
Mike Smith will be reviewing Patchwork in the October edition of Derbyshire Life. (The whisper is that he liked it.)
The Parisian Quartet is complete. Beneath Napoleon’s Hat made up of Eagles without a Cliff, A Black Violet and Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus has been joined by the full-length novel Patchwork. I read short extracts from each volume and talked of the creation of this collection in the marquee behind the Old Ship Inn on Saturday, June 25th at the Lowdham Book Festival.
On Wednesday, June 15th we launched Patchwork, the final volume in the Parisian Quartet. Patchwork is a full-length novel. One of its protagonists, Stanley, buys second-hand copies of the three novellas of Beneath Napoleon’s Hat to act as a guide to the city, to see what remains of the avant-garde and its need to meet in bookshops and cafés.
On Thursday, June 2nd we launched Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus at Jane Streeter’s charming Bookcase, in Lowdham. The novella completes the collection of Parisian tales told Beneath Napoleon’s Hat.
We launched ‘A Black Violet’, Volume 2 of the Parisian Tales ‘Beneath Napoleon’s Hat’ at Scarthin Books, The Promenade, Cromford on Saturday, March 12th at 6.30 pm.
February 18th read a short piece from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ at the Barley Mow, Bonsall as part of Colette’s literary evening led by Mark Gwynne Jones.
February 4th Amanda Penman interviewed me for an article in Artsbeat magazine.
January 25th 2016. I visited Nottingham High School and read extracts from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ to the Sixth Form. There were girls. A strange but pleasant change.
If you look at pages 61 to 63 of February’s edition of Derbyshire Life you can read Mike Smith’s article.
December 6th I gave a short reading from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio Christmas social.
November 11th 6 o’clock in the evening we launched ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ with natural champagne and Suze cocktails in Stanton-in-Peak village hall. It was great fun and so many friends were there. We went to The Flying Childers afterwards.
November 11th 2015 Interview with Mike Smith for a feature article in Derbyshire Life.
Extract from the Series Preface
The Café Procope can claim to be one of the oldest cafés in Paris. In 1686 it began serving coffee in porcelain cups to men of fashion. Three years later, in 1689, the Comédie Française appeared opposite, hence the Procope’s current address, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. The café became ‘theatrical’ and its customers of international renown.
The Phrygian Cap of French Revolutionary fame made its first appearance in the Procope when a bust of Voltaire was crowned with a red bonnet from the production of his play Brutus. Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins would sport their bonnets rouges over Republican whisperings at the Procope. Benjamin Franklin probably overheard them and took their message westwards.
Upstairs, quietly, a young Napoleon Bonaparte, still a junior officer of artillery, was playing chess. Whatever he ate or drank that night he couldn’t pay for. He left his hat as security for the unpaid bill but never returned. Perhaps once he was Emperor he had little use for the hat, or was simply too embarrassed to reclaim it.
As you walk into the Procope, just to your left, secure in a glass case and surrounded by an ornate frame, is that very hat. It sports a red, white and blue rosette above a single gold chevron. Every time I visit Paris, I go to the Café Procope, doff my imaginary hat to Napoleon’s, turn immediately left and sit in the seat just inside so I can drink my coffee beneath Napoleon’s hat. I fumble in my pocket for my moleskin notebook and begin to scribble, sketch and to stare, people watching, with a slightly self-conscious manner.
It is here, beneath the hat, that I begin my stories, some far too long to be short; others not quite long enough to become novels. They are all set in cafés of the past, famous for their would-be famous writers. Two bookshops have been given the honorary status of café: Shakespeare and Company and the House of the Lover of Books.
Most of the characters we meet would be considered minor players, the forgotten or little known visitors to the cafés, yet it was they who often enabled the then equally unknown to take their first steps to fame.
Together the tales explore the plight of the aspiring, the achieving, the lonely and the inconsolable as their creative minds seek understanding and belonging in the tribal security of the café.
After a quiet dinner in Stone Mount, Dr John Basford, our guest, noticed a missing volume from my collection of B S Johnson novels. He gave me not only a copy of the missing work but an enthusiastic response to all the stories of Beneath Napoleon’s Hat, a collection of pieces set in the famous literary cafés of Paris. The final story, La Coupole, had won the Mentoring Prize at Writing East Midlands and also admiration from John. So began an exciting and splendid collaboration. John was determined to publish these stories as art objects in their own right. Each of the three volumes would be produced by Colleybooks.com on fine quality French paper specially imported from Paris, printed in a Twenties style font with a beautifully designed cover.
The first volume, Eagles without a Cliff, is ready.
Robert McAlmon, Bryher and H.D. are determinedly en route to Paris. Soon enough McAlmon will inhabit Le Dôme and Bricktop’s, Montmartre and Montparnasse, but first he must honour the conditions of his false marriage to Bryher and accommodate Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) his wife’s lover.
The Hotel de la Tour Eiffel in London served the purpose of a café. It was artistic enough to house Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticists and equally acceptable as an escape for McAlmon from the oppressive and controlled world of Audley Street and its master, the improbably wealthy Sir John Ellerman, his new father-in-law.
The complex psychology of Bryher, the ambivalent sexuality of H.D. and the hedonistic, self-destructive qualities of McAlmon make up the entangled relational triangle at the centre of these stories.
McAlmon will meet his hero James Joyce, the less heroic Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes and so on — a who’s who of American expatriates passing through Paris. If this ‘Bunch’ are a part of a ‘Lost Generation’ as Gertrude Stein declared (she was there as well) then it is McAlmon who leads them astray.
Volume 2 A Black Violet will be published in March 2016.
Volume 3 Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus, La Coupole and others will be published in June 2016.
I met with Carole Blake of the Blake Friedman Agency on Saturday, March 28th, at the East Midland Writers’ Conference. ‘The Boy who made God smile’ had been awarded an Agent one-to-one. In our discussion Carole was most encouraging. She found the work colourful, with a strong narrative voice and picked out several passages for praise, some for their concision and one particular paragraph as an excellent example of ‘show not tell’. She liked the layering, the combination of cultures and the background of serious and contemporary themes. I was told afterwards that this was hard won praise. Henderson and Aimee were delighted.
My latest novel, ‘Patchwork – a story of Paris in the dark’ has been awarded a Critical Read at the Literary Consultancy. I have received a really helpful report from Michael Langan. I have woven together a number of narratives, as I did with ‘Godsmile’ and it has been difficult to unravel them. Last Sunday I think I succeeded. I have a final draft ready. I have sent it to a number of willing and suspecting readers.