Devoured by Anna Mackmin

The narrator of Anna Mackmin’s debut novel is a 12-year-old girl growing up at Swallow’s Farmhouse, a hippie commune in early-70s Norfolk, where she lives with her mother (Beth, an agoraphobic potter), Anthony (her father, a poet), Star (her younger sister, who at the start of the novel has been electively mute for some time, and has the habit of pulling out her hair), along with a small handful of fellow seekers after an alternative lifestyle, plus a dog, a goat, a cat called Great Uncle Elizabeth (a detail surely crying out for an explanation), and several chickens.

I call her the narrator, though at first glance the book appears to be written in the second person. But its use of “you” isn’t a literary device to involve you, the reader, a little bit more in the action, it’s the narrator’s way of telling her story to herself, addressing herself directly (as you do), which soon comes to feel more natural than the “I” of most first person narratives. It’s that little bit more intimate, as though this is a genuinely private interior monologue. (The narrator does have a name, but as this is only revealed about 300 pages into a 328 page book, it feels wrong to give it away in a review. It gains a certain comic punch by being delayed. In this Guardian interview with Mackmin, the narrator is referred to as “Nearly Thirteen”, which is a name used for her in the book, but only by one of her fellow commune-dwellers, and as he uses it with a distinctly lecherous slant, it really seems wrong to call her by it.)

The book has a couple of other stylistic quirks. Speech gets no “he said, she said”, but has the speaker’s name after what they’ve said. As in:

“These are my kids.” Mummy…
“They come through you, they are not of you.” Laura.

Which again quickly feels natural, though it did leave me hunting ahead, with the longer passages of speech, to find who was speaking before I read what they said. Also, double quotes are used for speech in the present, single quotes for remembered speech, which was quite a good device once I’d spotted it, as it allowed things people had said in the past to be interpolated as a commentary on what was happening in the present.

But back to the farm. Swallow’s is, despite being an idealistic experiment in alternative living, somewhat less than a utopia. House meetings quickly descend into petty squabbles, and usually end with someone bursting into tears (something the narrator occasionally makes herself do, just to get a meeting over with). It soon becomes apparent there’s not such an obvious dividing line between the quest for a more natural way of living (they don’t eat processed foods at Swallow’s Farmhouse, they “don’t believe in telly”, and they don’t believe in shoes, either) in which people can find themselves and live free of the shackles of conventionality, and the use of vague and un-thought-through ideals as an excuse for simply being self-centred. The perfect illustration of this is the way the adults deal with food — food being important in the novel, whose narrative is peppered with little recipes. Presented with a multi-course meal — with all the dishes laid out at once, as bringing them out in ordered stages would infringe people’s right to choose for themselves how they eat — the adults scoff the sweet stuff, grabbing as much for themselves as they can. And it’s the kids — the narrator and her sister — who do the cooking.

If Swallow’s Farmhouse is a topsy-turvy place for adults, its even more so for the children, who are pretty much expected to be adults, “old souls” in young bodies, though they’re excluded from some things, such as poetry readings, and are often fobbed off with excuses like “adults are complex and have complex needs and you will understand fully when you’re an adult”. These are the sort of people who believe you aren’t supposed to trust anyone over thirty, but it’s also clear they haven’t much patience for those who are younger than themselves, either. This is an environment with a childish idealisation of the innocent state of youth that doesn’t want to bother with the sometimes difficult innocence of children:

“What it boils down to is this: kids need to get a move on and grow up lickety spit and adults need to screech to a halt… Young is the thing.”

“My daughters are more like sisters,” Beth, the mother, says at one point, but the actual pair of sisters are the only ones really taking care of each other. It’s their relationship that’s at the core of the novel, though its power comes through largely in how little is said about it. The girls are always communicating with little looks and glances; they have their shared, private rituals; when Star remains mute, the narrator knows what she wants to say and says it for her; and some of the most poignant moments are when one has something the other hasn’t — a friendship, for instance — and there’s an obvious conflict between wanting them to have it and feeling separated from them by not being able to share in it.

On the one hand, Devoured is a comic novel, satirical of these supposedly idealistic adults’ utter failure to see their own hypocrisy, but it’s powered by genuine, deep emotion, and a real sense of danger. The lightest moments come when the narrator and Star are joined, briefly, by two boys from a nearby commune. A letter has arrived saying that an inspector will be coming to check on the children’s education, so the two communes team up to put on a show as “the Rainbow School”. It’s as disastrous as everything else the adults do, but the interaction between the children is wonderful, particularly as the narrator and thirteen-year old Orion fence their way towards a spiky friendship, neither wanting to admit how little they know about the real world, while trying to gain what insight they can from the gaps their communes’ slightly different ideals have left. (Orion’s parents, for instance, do believe in telly, leading to some light comedy when the narrator has no idea what Blue Peter, or who Valerie Singleton, is. They also, much to the narrator’s delight, believe in shoes.)

And that sense of danger. It centres on Bryan, the commune-dweller who calls the narrator “Nearly Thirteen”. The narrator, thinking she knows all about the adult world because nobody’s told her otherwise, doesn’t realise the danger she’s in when she flirts, experimentally, with him, or even what the danger properly is. And he, unsure of the rules in this more open, do-it-as-you-feel-it world, is obviously not sure, at first, of the damage he’s willing to do. But you know from the book’s title, and how the adults — particularly Bryan — gobble up anything sweet, what’s going to happen there.

The narrator’s determination to be herself in often difficult circumstances reminds me somewhat of Morwenna in Jo Walton’s Among Others — though that book is entirely about the immediate aftermath of escaping a damaging upbringing — which I reviewed a while back. Ultimately, Devoured is the tale of a survivor, and an excellent read.


The Loch Ness Monster

A Monstrous CommotionThe mysteries of the unexplained — UFOs, ESP, ghosts, and so on — were an integral part of growing up in the 1970s, just as the threat of global thermonuclear war was in the 1980s. And, just as, sometime in the mid-90s, I found myself looking back and thinking, ‘Hey, it seems we’re not going to die a horrendous radioactive death after all,’ I’ve recently found myself looking back on those unexplained mysteries I grew up with, wondering what happened to them.

In a sense, the Loch Ness Monster is the purest example of a ‘mystery of the unexplained’. Belief in UFOs implies belief in technologically advanced aliens; belief in ghosts implies belief in life after death; but belief in the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t imply anything other than belief in a ‘large living creature of an anomalous species’ in one particular body of water. It doesn’t even have to be, as the popular image has it, a plesiosaur — a reptile, and hence entirely unsuited to living in a cold-water loch, and, what’s more, a creature whose fossilised bones reveal it to be entirely incapable of raising its neck above the vertical, Nessie-style — it could be any dark, humped, long-necked, small-headed, giant water beastie, just so long as it (a) can be described as a monster, and (b) is in Loch Ness.

One of the things that fascinated me about the story of the Loch Ness Monster, as detailed in Gareth Williams’s comprehensive A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, was how, despite its having no religious or idealogical baggage, belief in the monster nevertheless inspires religious levels of devotion (as well as inter-factional and cross-factional squabbling). One sighting of an anomalous, glistening hump travelling across an otherwise glassy-calm loch can change lives. It can certainly ruin careers, as it did to Denys Tucker, only 26 years old when he was made Curator of Fishes by the British Museum in 1949, but sacked eleven years later, in part because of his insistence that the Museum investigate the Loch Ness Monster — but also because he was ‘shortfused and easily goaded into “intemperate” language and firing off abusive memos’. A martyr to the monster, maybe, but no saint.

Sir Peter Scott, son of the famous explorer and a natural history presenter for nearly three decades of BBC documentaries, planning a serious scientific expedition to Loch Ness, was advised (by the Assistant Private Secretary to Her Majesty, no less):

‘I’m sure that you would be right to enlist a psychologist amongst your team, as there is obviously something about the Loch Ness Monster which makes normally sane and balanced people behave in a highly emotional manner. Even if of no use to you, he would have an interesting time examining the causes of the Loch Ness Monster neuroses.’

And, as Gareth Williams says of another scientist/monster hunter:

‘Roy Mackal was knocked spectacularly off course by the Monster and became almost schizophrenic as a researcher. Back home in his molecular virology lab in Chicago, he was a methodical experimenter who published good work in high-quality journals. At Loch Ness, however, he behaved as though the water contained some mind-altering substance that made him throw away the basic principles of his research training. He bent facts, re-wrote evolution, invented new species which had no grounding in zoology and covered pages with lengthy calculations that were obviously wrong.’

Doctor_Who_and_the_Loch_Ness_MonsterAs a piece of modern cultural history, the Loch Ness Monster story is fascinating in its own little way, starting out with several sightings in the early 1930s, including that of a large ‘prehistoric’ animal crossing the newly-built road around the loch, it quickly attracts further sightings, rebuttals, parodies and hoaxes (when big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was financed by the Daily Mail to track down the beastie, he found footprints — that were later identified as the foot of a hippo, and just the single foot, not a pair, and a withered, dead foot at that, as these had been produced by an umbrella stand); it moves from the local paper to the nationals, and gets mentioned in Parliament, and on radio, and TV. It has films made about it (the first being The Secret of the Loch in 1934, edited by David Lean!). Books are published, books that collect the evidence, books that focus on particular theories, books that disprove other books. Photographs appear, and snippets of film, and, as technology moves on, underwater images, and sonar. Submarines are used, and a gyrocopter (straight off You Only Live Twice). The Loch gets dynamited, and peppered with biopsy darts. The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau is formed as a scientific investigation of the monster in the 1960s, and quickly gets derailed when an over-enthusiastic MP gets on board (who later loses his Brighton seat for spending too much time by a Scottish Loch). Then, in the 1970s, the Americans come along, with their money, and their new technology, and the whole thing gets a new lease of life. Photographs (enhanced first of all by cutting edge computer-scanning methods, but also, perhaps, by dodgy-but-traditional paintbrush methods) are printed in the most prestigious scientific journal of all, Nature. It even gets onto Blue Peter.

How can this mystery, fixated on one large but limited loch, go on for so long? At every stage, each new method for finding the monster, often driven by new technologies and new ideas about what it is and how it must behave, brings it own unique grey areas. Sonar scans, for instance, find anomalously large, fast-moving objects deep in the loch that get everyone’s pulse racing, but are later explained as artefacts caused by reflections off the thermocline, the border between regions of water with different temperatures. The loch itself, with its deep, deep bottom, can produce powerful underwater waves with startling effects on the surface, and even boat-wakes can reflect and linger in all sorts of monstrously deceptive ways. The most persistent and convincing pieces of evidence (to believers, anyway) are almost always found, later — often, as in the case of the celebrated ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’, much later — to be hoaxes. It’s not, as Denys Tucker insisted, an Elasmosaurus neck standing a clear twelve feet out of the water, but a home-made model on a clockwork submarine, and much smaller.

The 'Surgeon's Photograph' - a model monster on a clockwork submarine

The ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ – a model monster on a clockwork submarine

The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster isn’t so much a cryptozoological one, as a human one. The monster hunters are, as Gareth Williams puts it, ‘a wonderful collection of one-offs’, and their quest:

‘…a magical mystery tour, complete with a yellow submarine, a flying machine lifted from James Bond and electronic wizardry straight out of Tomorrow’s World.’

In this purest of all quests to plumb the ‘mysteries of the unexplained’, it’s the quest for mystery itself, whatever form it takes, that comes out the strongest. It only takes a human pair of eyes, and something deep enough, or dark enough, or fuzzily-edged or murky enough, or simply something (like the Loch’s waters) that does something strange every so often. That, and a nudge towards an interpretation: a myth, a story, a bit of folklore, a modicum of fear and of excitement. ‘Am I seeing a monster? What else could it be?’ After all, as recent political events have proved, human beings can find monsters anywhere.


Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.