Sunday 29 March 2009

"a dismal, breathless, untold place": Simon Turner reviews The Terrors by Tom Chivers

Okay. First, a disclaimer: blogger has this awful habit of deleting everything you've written if you select all the text manually for formatting and so on. Its autosave function, meanwhile, means that once the work is lost, it's lost, leaving you pretty much boned without any recourse. A sensible person might save the work elsewhere, but it's part and parcel of the instantaneous nature of blogging that such concerns rarely present themselves.

Basically, I'm telling you this so that you've got some reason to forgive me for any lapses of intelligence, critical judgement or taste. No doubt the original lost version of this review was infinitely more witty and erudite than the crude reconstruction you now see before you, but only the electronic ether will ever no for sure. (I would say it was, but I'm deeply biased and you should treat all of my opinions with scepticism and disgust.) Anyway, here's the review: don't say I didn't warn you.


The small press scene is absolutely vital to the health of poetry in this country. It's here that all the real work of poetry is done, whilst the higher echelons of the poetry kingdom reap the benefits of the hard work that the small presses have done. It's a little like feudalism, though with a lot less mud. Nine Arches Press is a new addition to the small press stable, but it's already done some excellent work publishing and promoting new poetry in the West Midlands and beyond. I'm saying this not only because the editors, after weeks of pleading, tears and threats, have agreed to publish a pamphlet by yours truly some time in the near future, but because I genuinely believe in what they're doing. So far, their editorial decisions have been spot on, and this new pamphlet from Tom Chivers does noting to alter that trend.

Tom Chivers is a very nice man who runs Penned in the Margins, which publishes and promotes new poetry in London. He often sends free books to the editors, which we never get around to reviewing because we're too boorish and lazy and uncultured. (I am, anyway: George is the very pinnacle of Guardian-reading metrosexual sophistication.) The Terrors is the first collection he's authored himself and, frankly, it's a blinder. It takes the form of emails fired off to the inmates of London's Newgate prison between, according to the author, "roughly 1700 and 1760". This is more than just a means of mining easy humour from anachronism. Rather, through the language itself - wherein internet age slang mingles uneasily with an almost Shakespearean diction to create a socio-linguistic palimpsest or montage - Chivers suggests the persistence of the past, and its unsettling intrusion into the present. In this regard, he's working very much within a continuum of London authors - which includes Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd in its rollcall - for whom the past is never a static thing, but constantly reasserting itself, often against the present's will. Barry MacSweeney's 'Ranter', with its omnivorous mingling of registers, its immersion in the world of the religious and political pamphleteers of the 17th and 18th centuries, is another definite forebear.

MacSweeney's sheer verbal energy seems to have rubbed off on Chivers, as what impresses most about The Terrors is its headlong rush of language, an explosive approach to the written word that matches the violence of the events it details:

"First, I look up 'corn-chandler'. There are Jacobites abroad, a plague of hungry Irish stamping at the bridleway. London draws you to its meagre bosom. And then, it seems like seven years: a simple country boy (that's you) stark bollock naked with a fruit knife in his hand. The plan is only half-cocked. The duffle-coated master bleeds, he bleeds, bleeds, bleeds. You pitch his blood int the coal-hole. His still-warm corpse decays inside the privy. The yard begins to smell like coffee burnt into a brick of ash. You know all this, of course. I've read the letter to your wife; how the knife was not a plan, just an afterthought. And they hung your hanged cadaver in the gibbet, Shepherd's Bush, 'til your insides trickled out and your knuckles stank of sulphur (also, an afterthought)."

It's difficult to give an impression of the excitement this collection generates for me. It's a truly remarkable sequence, alive to the possibilities of what language can do, totally confident in its creation of a hyperreality where past and present mingle and bleed into one another. If all of its meaning is not immediately apparent at first, second, or even third reading, this is no kind of handicap. The verve and energy of the writing is enough to make the leap over any semantic gaps the reader might uncover. This is a very achieved debut, and I see it as something of a call to arms to other young poets: who's going to top it?

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