Lost in the Middle


The first edition of A Bend in the River, published in 1979

A Bend in the River starts in the childhood of Salim, our narrator. He is an African of Indian origin, living on Africa’s east coast – except this part of the continent can’t really be described as Africa:

“AFRICA WAS MY HOME, had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean.”

When civil unrest threatens, Salim heads into the interior to take up a business opportunity offered by a family friend. This is a shop selling bits of everything in a town beside a river in an unnamed central African country. Salim’s town is at the heart of both country and continent, but – in an irony characteristic of the book – seems very much a marginalised place. Despite the town’s central location, in terms of the river it lies right at the end of navigation, as far up stream as a boat can reach. The east coast might be not truly African, but Salim’s town in the middle is not truly African either. It’s a peripheral place, with a turbulent population riven by all kinds of allegiances. This situation is reflected in the real world. Think of the great cities of America, for example, and you’ll see that the top two – New York and Los Angeles – are ports on the coast, where there is the greatest interchange with other places. America’s geographical centre is in rural Kansas, close to the town of Lebanon, with a population of just over 200.

Pondering on the book after I’d finished it, I thought about a line in a Lindisfarne song about another town by a river:

“The fog on the Tyne is all mine.”

There’s a passage in A Bend in the River involving river mist.

“In the darkness of river and forest you could be sure only of what you could see –and even on a moonlight night you couldn’t see much. When you made a noise –dipped a paddle in the water –you heard yourself as though you were another person. The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder. In the daylight –though the colours could be very pale and ghostly, with the heat mist at times suggesting a colder climate –you could imagine the town being rebuilt and spreading.”

The town is little more than a fleeting daydream. People think they own the fog, but the fog belongs to no one – or it belongs to everyone if you wish to look at things from a warmer perspective. Admittedly, a warmer perspective is not very evident in A Bend in the River.

Perhaps a warmer perspective comes from the sense that finishing the book, people might not be so quick to differentiate insiders from outsiders, people who belong from those who don’t. With the centre in the same place as the periphery, with home presented as such a nebulous concept, we might ironically become more welcoming and tolerant.

Arriving at Highway 61

Songs have long acted as aids to travel. Tramping feet and the stroke of oars follow a steady rhythm. Songs once served a practical purpose in smoothing this rhythm, a process reminiscent of tuning an engine.

There is, however, more to a song than providing a beat, just as there is more to a journey than getting to a destination.  Does the destination really match up to expectations? Does focusing too much on a goal take away from appreciating what we see on the way to it? The wisdom that comes from experiencing the conflicting emotions of a journey seems to have leaked into songwriting, making it much more than a utilitarian device to help coordinate a team on the move, or in modern terms, to help motivate an exercise class.

So, as part of my series of articles on album titles as effective writing, let’s have a look at some travelling album titles. First, there is Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. The real Highway 61 paved the way for Bob Dylan to follow his song writing dreams, running from the Canada United States border, through Duluth – where Bob Dylan was born – and on down through America to New Orleans, one of the early homes of modern popular music. On the way, the road passes close to Memphis – where Elvis Presley lived at Graceland – and Clarksdale, birthplace of Muddy Waters. The Blues singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on Route 61 near Clarksdale. Clarksdale is also the place where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. This crossroads is a musical tourist attraction, commemorating a young Blues singer named Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have offered his soul to the devil at this spot, in return for musical ability.

Bob Dylan gets his camera and sets off to explore this long series of musical milestones. The crucial word in the title of Bob Dylan’s strange travelogue is “revisited”. Apart from the sense of going back on yourself, there is something odd about the word revisited when applied to a road stretching for 1,400 miles. We usually use a road to visit a particular place. Highway 61 is a place in itself, one long series of arrivals and departures in a world associated with music.

Highway 61 is the opposite of the Yellow Brick Road, as immortalised by L. Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is like one of those coloured lines at Victoria Station, existing for one purpose only – to guide a traveller unerringly to a destination, whether that’s the taxi rank or, in the case of Baum’s story, the Emerald City. It is interesting that when Elton John came to reference the Yellow Brick Road in the title of his massively successful album of 1973, it was to say goodbye to such a road. Highway 61 is notable for itself as much as for where it goes. The Beatles who named an album after a road, are known for crossing that road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, the story of selling his soul to the devil might be a lot of nonsense, but it shows that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than highways reaching the Emerald City. Abba called their most successful album Arrival. Think of the difference if they had called it Arrived. Arrival is a process which continues. It involves marching bands and excitement. Arrived is something finished. Arrived is what happens when Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City and find it’s something of a sham.

It only takes a small detail to transform the mundane description of a journey into something musical. Consider the band Supertramp – a band with a great name when it comes to endless journeys. In 1979 they took a trip across the Atlantic on an airliner in the title of their album Breakfast in America. Breakfast in America suggests a long, trans-Atlantic night flight, while the detail of breakfast at the end of it suggests a brief pause before the journey continues on somewhere else. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America.

After breakfast we could head off into America, which puts me in mind of the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ from the American Beauty album. The Grateful Dead could have called their song Trucking, but dropping the final g in favour of an inverted comma suggests a word repeated frequently enough for abbreviation to creep in. In this way, Truckin’ suggests the routine slog of driving. This is not trucking from one place to another, this is truckin’ without end.

We might not be able to reach the end, but perhaps we can take a break from the trip with the Eagles at the Hotel California. This musical hotel has a name which suggests it encompasses the entire state through which you drive, like a visit to Highway 61, where the journey and destination are the same.

This is the contradictory nature of musical travel – offering a Ticket to Ride, which refers both to the journey taken, and the destination, which, according to Paul McCartney was the town of Rhyde on the Isle of Wight. Music is a transport of emotion, the sort of transport that can move people even if they stay in the same place.


A Good Book for a Small Angry Earth

Before I start this review, I just want to tell you about the crew of HMS Victory, the flagship of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This ship, so strongly associated with English nationalism, had a multinational crew. According to Jane’s Naval History, the crew included – 441 English, 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 22 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 French, 3 Norwegian, 3 Germans, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Swiss, 2 Channel Islanders, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 1 Russian, 1 African, 1 Manxman, and 9 men from the West Indies.

This is all by way of introduction to the crew of spaceship Wanderer, whose fortunes we follow in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A similarly mixed bunch, they crew a ship making worm hole tunnels through a universe populated by different species with conflicting opinions and customs. How all these life forms get along together is the main theme of the book.

We see, for example, the future of nationalism in characters who insist on maintaining the pure identity of particular life forms. These people seem condemned to pursue a mirage. To make this point, the story includes cloned individuals who are genetically identical, but still hate each other. There is also an interesting character formed by a host creature and a kind of parasitic virus. The viral infection confers special powers on its host at the cost of a dramatically shortened life span. The host makes persuasive arguments for this strange viral alliance, telling worried human colleagues that vital cellular elements of the human body are the result of ancient infections, incorporated into its genetic makeup. It seems that individuals themselves are a kind of cellular community trying to get along. Getting along with life different to yourself seems a basic requirement of living. It is pointless trying to isolate yourself within a single identity.

Then you run into contradictions. Accepting differences might be important, until you get to the point where acceptance becomes so pervasive that there may as well be no differences. The host of the virus might be correct about foreign cells incorporated into human bodies, but the creature is slowly dying as a result of its alliance. There is too much acceptance, too much staring out of windows, which this creature does a lot. The virus is too close to its host, so much so that the individual is referred to as “they”. It’s like one of those couples who are so into each other that they give up all their friends and it gets a bit unhealthy. Continuing with the human body parallels, some diseases corrupt body cells to make them all the same, which is of course disastrous.

Variety might cause disorder but it’s a better type of disorder to that caused by those of a totalitarian bent who seek uniformity. It’s a difficult contradiction, explored with great subtlety.

So thematically I thought this book was excellent. It really had its heart in the right place and, like all good sci-fi, said something important about the here and now. Reluctantly, I do also have to say that the quality of the writing was sometimes patchy. There was a fair amount of telling rather than showing, particularly in the middle of the book. At one point we met a new character, only for a description of their background to pop up out of nowhere, as though the author’s character notes had just been slotted in. There was also an irritating reliance on exclamation marks in some of the dialogue. By the end, however, I had forgiven all this. The wonderful sci-fi writer Douglas Adams used lots of adverbs – those things which new writers are told to avoid – but no one really holds it against him. In the end, for me, the same applies here.