Birdcage Walk, Dunmore’s Swan Song

Helen Dunmore lost her fight with cancer. Birdcage Walk was the last book she published. (Updated June 5, 2017)

The following was published in March 2017 and I’m reprinting here.

Helen Dunmore is big news in the publishing world. Birdcage Walk is already the book at bedtime on Radio4, she has had a programme on the BBC to talk about her poetry and has received national coverage. That’s some doing, but then Dunmore is a multi-award-winning author whose book A Spell of Winter was the first Orange Prize winner. Her previous book Exposure was utterly compelling from start to finish and Birdcage Walk is similar. In She has also just announced she “was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis.”

The title of the book is a graveyard, the prelude talks of death, the prologue includes a death, the historical parallel is the French Revolution with its guillotine-ahoy-solution to regime change, and the setting is Bristol but at a time when Clifton was not the provider of upper-middle-class comfort it is now, but a purveyor of destruction for those trying to build there.

Birdcage Walk is the first Bristol novel by prolific award-winning writer and long-time Bristol resident, Helen Dunmore, and it is the book that she was working on while being quite ill (although unawares).

The novel itself is eminently readable; I finished it in one night. Dunmore has cleverly taken some of the most important but seldom-talked-about aspects of Bristol and turned them into a story. (The half-built Georgian terraces in Clifton are also mentioned in the Devil’s Mask.)

[[PHOTO CREDIT: A reading from the Devil’s Mask in front of the Royal York Crescent terraces, which in the story are half-built.]]

There is a lot there to combine, however, and coming out at the end of it all, there is a confusing sense of not knowing the unifying theme behind the story. What does the hero go through to emerge out the other end and how does she need to change in order to escape her fate? This is no Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, which is by far the best historical account of Bristol I have read so far and with incredibly well-written characters.

The point of the Birdcage Walk seems to reside in the phrase “Her Words Remain Our Inheritance” and the constant presence of death. Nothing else really unites the book apart from its author’s sense of impending doom.

The story is set in 1792 but begins with a modern-day ‘prelude’, which introduces an unrelated grieving character who stumbles upon the grave of Julia Fawkes, next to Birdcage Walk, and finds out little about her.

This prelude is meant to introduce the reader to Fawkes as someone whose (important?) work has been erased, but it’s a bizarre narrative ploy. It’s the equivalent of an unnecessary dialogue introduced for the sole purpose of relaying some information to the reader. It’s ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. Dunmore writes of Fawkes – the character/actual person – that “She writes with the confidence of one who knows that an eager readership is waiting for her. Her voice is original, persuasive and disturbing, for she is writing about equality, the rights of women and the poor, and about the damage to society caused by hereditary privilege.” This we are meant to take on faith because as Dunmore writes, “not one word of Julia’s writing survives.”

There is one writer, however, whose writing has survived and who spawned the feminist movement in Britain; Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792 – the same year the novel is set and with Wollstonecraft being about the same age as Fawkes is depicted in the novel. Wollstonecraft who also wrote about the French Revolution, is the mother of Mary Shelley who has quite a link to Bristol. Shelley was married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who along with Coleridge and Wordsworth, would often meet in Bristol. She also wrote Frankenstein, which is set to have been inspired by what Shelley saw of the slave trade when she summered in Clifton in 1815. So it’s great that Dunmore wants to highlight people whose voice didn’t make it through the centuries but similar thoughts did make it to present time. Would Fawkes’ work be any different to Wollstonecraft’s in its essence?

Birdcage Walk is set in 1792 against the backdrop of Europe’s political turmoil and violence. There is a property boom in Clifton, which is about to come crashing down with the declaration of war in 1793 but while we follow our protagonist Lizzie, the doom is still impending. The freedoms that the French Revolution promises are slowly revealed over the course of the novel to come with death and terror. I’m not sure if there are meant to be parallels between the entitled who are toppled in the French Revolution and the austerity imposed around the world by the elite 1% but they aren’t hard to spot. But again, there is no real message that comes through about revolution and uprisings as a lesson for our protagonist.

There are feminist glimpses in the story – a bit overt – such as the inability of women to own property (until quite a lot later) and of everything belonging to their husbands. Lizzie’s ever decreasing sphere of freedom in a relationship that slowly turns potentially abusive is another exploration of the lack of rights of women.

Everything slowly seems to progress towards death and terror until the very end.

In 1792, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge yet so Clifton houses may have overlooked Leigh Woods but to get there you had to cross by boat. Who was the ferryman in the story? Diner, the main character.

It’s a compelling premise – what happens after things come crashing down? I could not get into the spirit of what Dunmore suggests the book is about; writing “about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history.”

I also couldn’t quite understand how the main character, Lizzie, fit into that category since she didn’t really write anything.

I loved the Bristol mentions in the book and it was very local to me. My husband used to live on the Royal York Crescent and the dressmaker’s next to the surgery is a place I walk by frequently.

It’s an entertaining read and its timeline and plot make for compelling reading but its characters lack the depth that would have really made this novel stand out.

Birdcage Walk was published on 2 March, 2017. It’s currently being broadcast on Radio4.

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Less tax for landlords in Bristol?

Should the Bristol City Council be accepting sponsorship from a company whose stated purpose is for landlords to pay less tax?

In October 2016, Mr Rees warned cuts of £92m would have to be made to Bristol City Council’s budget by 2022, with further savings of £33m before the end of the the 2016-17 financial year.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-39526029

So why were they accepting sponsorship for the Landlords Expo held on May 25, from Less Tax for Landlords.

“Less Tax For Landlords is a specialist tax and estate planning service dedicated to the needs of those who are involved in owning commercial property, residential buy-to-lets, HMOs, investment property, or property development.

Our goal is to help you build and run a highly tax efficient professional property business, and to pass on your hard-earned wealth to those you care about most, minimising tax leakage insofar as the law allows, and all whilst keeping  you in full control of your affairs today.”

One of the company’s directors, Malcolm Keith Rose, is associated with 10 other companies including LESS LAW FOR LANDLORDS LIMITED. Less law for landlords sounds like something in line with the legislation that failed to pass last year when Tories rejected a move to ensure rented homes were fit for human habitation. (Read debate on the Housing and Planning Bill here).

An Act that is accused of allowing the selling of housing association properties, subsidising that sale by selling council properties, reducing local authority incomes to build properties by reducing rent, and allowing developers to get away without building any social homes.

Some legislation that affects property owners is that since 2016, “buyers have had to pay an extra stamp duty surcharge of 3pc of the value of a home if it is not their main residence.”

At the same time the general population and the most deprived communities have had to deal with the effects of austerity, which include the slashing of local council funding, “[t[he most deprived all-purpose authorities saw cuts of more than £220 per head compared with under £40 per head for the least deprived.”

And let’s not forget that under the previous mayor, Marvin Rees complained about council homes being sold off and wanted to wait until after the election. In reality, had the council houses been sold any later, the money would have had to be given to the government and not been available to use to fund new council houses.

“[E]xisting council building programmes are often partly financed from the revenue projected from selling a small number of the most expensive council homes. Most of that revenue will now be seized by central government to fund discounts under the new Right to Buy instead.”

In a city where Labour mayor, Marvin Rees has vowed to build 800 new homes a year until 2020, should there be any support for such a company as ‘Less Tax For Landlords’?

Colours Along The Floating Harbour, Bristol

Colours Along The Floating Harbour

Baby Boomers, All About Age?

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik were at the Arnolfini as part the Festival of Ideas. Howker and Malik have written the book Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth.

“Born after September 1979? Struggling to find a decent job, even though you’re a graduate? Can’t afford to buy or even rent a house? No prospects? Welcome to the jilted generation. Things go wrong in society all the time, but rarely do they go wrong for an entire generation” says the summary at the back of the book.

Apparently these two authors did their own research and discovered that today’s young people (31 and under) did actually face a harder time than young people of 30 to 40 years ago. Pardon me for my lack of enthusiasm when Malik told us that he’d had to learn to use Excel and to draw up graphs and everything. Compare that to the 1.38 million hits that social mobility as a search term brings up in Google Scholar.

Some of the issues that young people are facing according to the authors:

  • Being stuck in the rental sector, over 50% of young people rent because they can’t afford to buy;
  • Student fees mean that young people start off their professional lives in debt.
  • General financial situation: increased national debt because of the costs of pensions and the NHS etc.

Why do these things matter?

  • Because young people will stop having children, apparently there is a statistical link to housing and money;
  • Society will lose its communities;
  • People will stop having relationships;
  • People will start leaving the country.

The political part of the discussion focussed on neoliberalism and the rise of Thatcherism. There was some discussion about demographics and market research and how we were now segmented into voters. Politics focuses on short term discussions rather than the real issues apparently.

Also, young people just weren’t involved in politics any more, they weren’t striking, they weren’t protesting and they were generally apathetic. The irony of the pair’s own friends who were policy advisers and that at 29 they told us they were themselves too old to advise politicians seemed to pass them by.

The relationship between the media and politics was questioned and we were told that editors are usually much older and this was the problem.

Ed Howker rejected the idea of class as a determinant of how society works. Then when I questioned why they, two 29 year old journalists, who in general are professionals who will have grown up in families that are better off than three in four of all families in the UK, and both married saw themselves as facing the same issues as young kids from Brixton (an example from another audience member) – Shiv got defensive and wondered why his choice to get married should have any affect.

Most of the talk was based on generalisations, 50% of young people are now in higher education we were told. In actual fact the real rate was 45% in 2008/09. But those 45 out of 100 are not randomly plucked out of the population. Female and male young people face a difference at 51% and 40%, respectively. Also, “currently fewer than one in five young people from the most disadvantaged areas enter higher education compared to more than one in two for the most advantaged areas.” (2010, Hefce 10/03).

It was a fascinating talk and most of it was shallow enough to raise many arguments. Some audience members agreed with the ‘analysis’ and told about how their children spent too much money. Another woman nearly had tears in her eyes talking about how she had to go on the dole in January after being very well educated. I was reminded of the David Icke documentary I saw one time where the existence of lizard people was combined with discussions of 9/11 and terrorism. Just because some elements are true does not mean that we need to believe the rest.

Playing On The Side, North St



Playing On The Side, North St, originally uploaded by still awake.

Transported: When Not Waiting

In December 2009, I was running for the morning train through the dark and rainy streets of Bristol. The time was just before seven and the train doors were beginning to close as I sprinted towards the barriers. The guard used his pass to let me through the gate and then pointed towards the end of the train while the manager held the remaining open door for me.

The train left a few seconds late that morning because of the efforts at Bristol Temple Meads. I was so enthused by the wonderful treatment that my compliments were effusive on Twitter. The response from some was that at least the staff were nice this once. I realised, however, that there had been very few bad days overall. That was one magical event in a series of pretty ok travelling over four years.

The inside of the train is usually warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I tend to get a seat and occasionally have the privilege of having a table to myself. The waiting part is the worst because not only is it indeterminate but the standing around is done outside. Buses are more variable in their service probably due to traffic and other urban centre issues. Trains seem to be better at getting there.

This isn’t just anecdotal information; the annual public performance measures by the Office of Rail Regulation backs up my memories with data. A train is defined as being “on time” if it arrives within five minutes or ten minutes of the planned destination arrival time.

The service I use is now run by CrossCountry but was run by Virgin. In Quarter 2, the on time measures were 89.9% for 2008/09 and 91.8% for 2009/10. Compare that to Virgin whose on time statistics were 81.9% for 2008/09, a huge difference, especially for anyone waiting out in the cold. However even they have improved to around 90%.

When everything runs on time, and that includes my waking up, I can be home in Bristol by 6.30pm. Other times, of course, it’s not that easy.

I remember a winter three years ago when I was still reading my Terry Pratchett book at 8pm in the snow while waiting for the Virgin train which didn’t want to arrive. I went home through Newport once because the track to Bristol had to be closed off. There was snow and ice on the tracks that closed off the Severn Tunnel and made a morning’s journey much longer but provided some beautiful Welsh scenery and the slow journey behind a regional train that extended the 42 minutes into over 160. These tales of woe, however, are sparse and in between. In February 2009, the snow in England which shut down most work was mostly ignored by the trains although I was warned to avoid travelling by a colleague who arrived in Cheltenham and couldn’t get to work because the buses had been stopped. He paused for a coffee and then went back home.

The commute may not be as lovely a journey as those on the Orient Express but it’s usually a nice break from reality and punctuated by a cup of coffee and a good book.

on time

The Views From Vauxhall Bridge Are Forever, Bristol