As I’ve recounted elsewhere (a tweet, I think) the first thing that made me think I should read Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story collection, Pond, was the strong recommendation it received from a barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee, where I’d take refuge so as to fill in time before the first day of auditions for the Nottingham Playhouse production of Darkness, Darkness, which I’d adapted from my own novel, and which were to take place in the basement of the American Free Church nearby. There I was, sitting patiently waiting for my flat white (think New Zealand time) and reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, when the barista interrupted herself from her task long enough to call across, “That was the best book I read the whole of last year.” After which, while I was still waiting for my flat white, she further said, “If you like that, you should read Pond.” And I thought she said Pound and was about to say I didn’t think so (my good friend Tom had recommended Pound to me when we were both at Goldsmiths, many years ago – the ABC of Reading, if I remember correctly – and I hadn’t really got on with it, though of course I would never have admitted it at the time) but then I realised she had said Pond and not Pound, at least that’s what I now thought, so,  to be sure, I asked her again and wrote the correct title down in the back of my notebook before leaving.

The book, when I came across it a few days later, face out on the shelf in Foyles (the Charing Cross Road branch) made me want to pick it up immediately, and I would, in all probability, have done so even without the earlier recommendation, it looked so perfect. White text on a strong and plain blue background, just the title and the author’s name and the name of the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Great job, Fitzcarraldo! Just to be sure, I checked with the guy who works in the fiction section who’d previously recommended Lucia Berlin, and whose judgement could therefore be trusted, and when he gave it the thumbs up, without further hesitation, I bought it.

You know how sometimes you start on something you’ve been really looking forward to, the spaghetti vongole your partner has been labouring over in the kitchen, for instance, or an old and lovingly remembered episode of Homicide or Hill St.Blues, and almost immediately doubts appear? Well, I have to say, that happened here. After three weighty quotes in the frontispiece, one from Nietzsche, the first story, “Voyage in the Dark”,  just over half a page long, seemed worryingly precious and rather transparently ‘meaningful’, and I had the kind of feeling I used to get stepping into the rooms at Tate Britain showing the work of that year’s Turner Prize nominees, namely, Oh shit I ought to like this or, at the very least, I ought to defend the right of others to like it, but then, mercifully, and before that thought could be fully formed or acted upon, I turned the page to the second story, “Morning, Noon and Night”, which begins …

Sometime a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take all that well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort.

And so it goes for eighteen pages, expanding its focus outwards and inwards from bowls strategically placed on the window sill to display aubergines and squash, and some more discussion of the possibilities of breakfast, to the place where she now lives, the place where she used to live, her interest in and aversion to gardening of various kinds,  baths, the language of love and her relationship, hinted at, with a man who may (or may not) live close by, finally settling for a detailed description of the stone cottage, in the kitchen of which she’s standing, chopping walnuts. All in prose that could seem long-winded and unnecessarily tortuous if it weren’t for the fact that you can read it aloud almost at first sight without ever stumbling, so well-judged is it in its balance, its distinctive rhythms and repetitions.

As the man from Foyles said, it doesn’t always work but when it does …

The stories centre around the narrator living on her own in a fairly remote stone cottage which I venture to guess from the weather is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. She’s on her own, but not quite on her own; there seems to be at least one gentleman caller, though sometimes she calls on him (them?) and returns with her knickers worn inside out over her tights. As the blurb writer puts it nicely on the back jacket, she is “captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire.”

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s  method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

As the barista might say, it’s the best book I’ve read so far the year.







Problems of the Prostate

The phone rang, as it often did, around one in the afternoon. Another cold call, I thought, from someone in the Indian sub-continent offering to sort out the problems on my computer.
“Mr Harvey?”
“Mr John Harvey?”
Usually, by this time I’d have said something moderately abusive and set down the phone.
“This is Doctor B…..’s surgery.” I recognise the voice. “The results of your blood test have come back and your PSA is above the acceptable level for men in your age group.”
So … not a computer problem.
“Are you likely,” she asks, “to have been sexually active in the 48 hours before taking the test?”
Momentarily, I’m thrown. How long ago did I take the test? Five days? Six? “Erm, it’s possible,” I stumble.
“Is there any way of being certain?”
I could call my partner at work, I think. And then, almost immediately, I could not call my partner at work. And besides, who am I kidding? I’m a 76 year old male. Wouldn’t I remember if I’d been sexually active five or six days ago?
“I’d like to refer you,” the doctor says, “to the Uro-oncology department at XXX hospital.”
Oh, God, I think. It’s cancer. When my hands have stopped shaking, I log onto the internet to learn the worst.

Less than two weeks later I’m sitting across from S……, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Prostate Care. He is calm, articulate and clear. Reassuring. My PSA, he says, is only slightly elevated above the normal level for my age. He asks about other symptoms, difficulties peeing at night – too little, too often, too much – suggests a rectal examination in a way that makes it seem no more out of the way than drinking a cup of tea.

I lie on my side with my knees pulled up towards my chest; guarded by a thin glove coated in gel, S….. does the deed. It’s over quite quickly and a lot less painfully than I’d thought; not painful at all, actually, merely strange and only vaguely uncomfortable. S…. asks would I mind if the female medical student observing takes the opportunity to perform the same operation. As she gels up, I realise I’m hardly in a position to refuse.

The results of the examination are positive; my prostate is hard and firm, which is as it should be. S…. suggests another blood test to see if my high PSA was an aberration; outlines the other means of diagnosis, biopsies, ultrasound, the possibility of taking part in research study. He is so good at this, so practiced, that I believe everything he says completely. I am actually enjoying sitting there, being the focus of his attention. If there is anything seriously amiss, it’s S….. I want to be looking after me. Is this, I wonder, the start of some kind of Munchausen syndrome?

Buoyed up, I treat myself to a flat white at Tap Coffee before catching the bus home. S…. phones just a few days later. My PSA has dropped several points. He would like to schedule another test, hopefully to confirm a downward trend. An appointment is fixed for six weeks time.

I know from the internet and the material provided by the hospital that problems of the prostate are not necessarily cancerous; the most common – BPH or Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia – is, well, benign. Most men aged 70 and over are likely to have cancerous cells in their prostate that will never pose a life-threatening risk. But I also know that prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, and, after lung cancer, the most fatal. 10,000 men die from it every year.  And the various diagnostic tests available are less than reliable.

Oh, boy!

Six weeks roll around. Imagine my disappointment when I discover I am not scheduled to see S…. at all, but a Senior Clinical Researcher and Hon. Consultant Urological Surgeon called R…… Is this good or bad? As it turns out, good. My most recent PSA score has continued the downward trend and is now safely (but what’s safe?) back inside lower limits. R…. sees no need for further investigation or treatment and dictates a letter to my GP accordingly. “This pleasant gentleman …”

Time for another flat white …