scott manley hadley

Bad Boy Poet, available for pre-order now

We are chuffed to announce that Bad Boy Poet, the debut poetry collection from Scott Manley Hadley is now available for pre-order here.

Bad Boy Poet is a series of “confessional-style” poems describing the life of a confused and conflicted youngish man as he tries to work out who he is following a mental health crisis and the subsequent breakdown of a relationship. Also there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs.

“Re-inventing self-confession as shockwave” – Susana Medina
“Moving and powerful” – Faruk Šehić (winner of the EU Prize for Literature)
“Painfully honest, hilarious, full of sh*t” – Fernando Sdrigotti


PENCAST 3: Poesy

May 29, 2018
INTRO Sean Preston & Ian Green.
Fiction – DEAD YARD by Maria Thomas @mariatwrites – LONDON SHORT STORY PRIZE WINNING STORY
Fiction – THE THURSDAY CLUB by Elissa Soave @elissa_soave
Fiction – TRUCK TALE by Tadhg Muller
Poetry by Scott Manley Hadley from his forthcoming Bad Boy Poet book. @Scott_Hadley
MUSIC:  Ketsa FreeMusicArchive



RIVER  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)  BY ESTHER KINSKY
(translated Iain Galbraith)


Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley, MA Hons, BA Hons, Poet, Lover, Fighter, Man (not in that order)

Now that I self-identify as a poet (see blog on that revelation here), let’s fuck about with the reviewing format a bit. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make it into a poem, but now that I feel like language is mine to fuck with, fuck with it I AM GOING TO DO. NB: poets like to say “fuck”.


I’m writing, not talking, about River, a novel published at the end of 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the people behind many of my favourite books of the last few years (eg Pond, eg Zone, eg Football).

Fitzcarraldo specialises – as far as I can tell – in a kind of literary prose that offers both great emotional heft and rich intellectualism, with the essays they publish provoking intense catharses and their novels evidencing deep learning. Fitzcarraldo make great, beautiful, books, and River is no exception. It is a novel written by Esther Kinsky and published in its original German in 2014, with the translation completed by Iain Galbraith (who, like me, is also a poet) and part funded by English PEN (no relation to Open Pen).

zxqruubremifviux6dwcWHAT IS IT ABOUT?

Not certain about this format choice, but I’m gonna roll with it anyway.

River is about lots of things, but predominantly place, memory and change. The aftereffects of war and industrialisation ripple through the novel, which is set in disparate places that exist beside and around rivers. It feels very lived, if that makes sense, as in it feels more like a collection of honest, enterable, memories, rather than fiction. I mean this as a compliment, rather than an accusation: I don’t care how realistic or realist a novel is, as long as its truth is cohesive and consistent, I’m a happy little reader.


OK, right. Will try again.

River features one female first person narrator who is reminiscing on numerous personal experiences she’s had close to flowing water. In the present, the narrator has just moved into a flat, alone, in east London, near the River Lea. She wanders around the riverbanks, canals, marshes and parks that surround this river, taking photographs, collecting objects, and amassing memories from the other wanderers she meets. As she explores, the narrator disappears into her own past, too. This leads to chapters set near the Rhine (beside which she grew up), the Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges), the St Lawrence (Toronto), the Tisza (which flows through Hungary and neighbouring countries) and the Neretva (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia), as well as glimpses of the Thames, the Danube, the Po and many rivers that aren’t famous enough for me to remember their names (the ones here that aren’t famous are the titles of chapters, so v easy to check.)

The memories that are evoked stem from across an entire life, from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and living away from the parental home for the first time, to brief trips made within Europe to long distance, long format, holidays taken to India. There is a curiosity throughout, a real love and engagement with water as a force, as a signifier and as a literal thing that is both beautiful and dangerous. We see rivers that bring life, that bring death, rivers that cleanse, rivers that are polluted with chemicals, polluted with excrement, rivers that are hidden by human structures that negate the natural landscape, and rivers that are used for play, albeit play that is haunted by risk (the concept, not the boardgame).

The memories that are plucked out of the narrator’s head weave in and out of different times, and frequently engage with ideas related to place, to the way that a place affects those who live in it, and how industrialisation and societal development change the way in which people interact with land and with water. River is a book that is dense in detail: it describes rich, complex landscapes and emotive personal experiences, all of them tied to rivers, all of them drawing a portrait of a character who is looking for – I think – peace.


The narrator is complex and, at times, confusing. The novel speaks in the same voice throughout, but there is a lot that is left unspoken, unexplored, unnamed. The narrator’s friends are never quite friends, more acquaintances, and their names are sometimes guessed, sometimes nicknames, but never complete descriptions of an identity, though they may be complete descriptions of a character. We rarely know both who and what a person is, if that makes sense?

There are immigrants from all over the world whose histories are explored, and the narrator is sociable and observant. However, she never seems to make any close connections with others, perhaps because of personal tragedy. In the narrator’s memories of Toronto she has a son, a son who does not feature in the present. Is the narrator recently bereaved, did she lose custody of the child, or are her circumstances, wandering alone in East London, perfectly happy, i.e. has enough time passed for the child to have grown up and become independent? I dunno. Am I seeking for an undercurrent of tragedy because that is what I like in fiction? Am I asking the wrong questions? Was I incorrectly looking at River for a singular human story, when in fact it is far more concerned with numerous, pluralised, lives?

I suppose what this comes down to is that, no matter how gorgeous and evocative Galbraith’s translation of Kinsky’s descriptions are, this is a book that is fundamentally about place and people’s immediate, direct, relationship with it. There are mentions of emotion and swift, moving, passages about grief and loneliness, for example, but what recurs, what never goes away, is the presence of rivers, which flow onwards, like life innit, which flows. And though the metaphorical emotionality of this text might be deep, for me there is an absence of personal emotional engagement that left me a little… unfulfilled. I, as a mature, complex, adult, though, can tell this is an issue of my taste and Kinsky’s intention: River is a strong and impressive novel, it just isn’t the kind of novel that drives me wild. I wanna cry big wet tears; this is not the book for that.


I don’t know about this.

River could be described as female-led (or female centric) psychogeography, which – as a USP – sounds like something with the potential for absolutely top sales, right? So, the target demographic would be people who regularly read psychogeography, right, plus people who are intrigued by the idea of psychogeography but find the genre too male, too self-absorbed, too flat, normallyIn my opinion – which is literally what this whole fucking post is River isn’t quite enough of a departure from psychogeography as standard to please people with a pre-existing disapproval of it. This doesn’t mean that River isn’t a particularly good example of the genre (it is), but it does mean that River doesn’t do anything to disrupt the presumptions and traits of psychogeography. Does that make sense? I keep asking that. I’m nervous, this is very much an intellectual text and I’m feeling self-conscious about being critical of it. Does it make sense?


No, almost certainly not. Kinsky’s written a top book of its type here, however my point is that it’s a type of book I’m not really into.


I’m pretty certain I said explicitly, above, that it is a great example of its genre, yes. River is more than a good text.

Kinsky’s landscape descriptions are gorgeous, a reader is transported across multiple continents and driven beside, sailed along, walked near, waded in, swam in and sat, overlooking, numerous rivers. The reader is inundated with references to the way society changes, the ways in which geography is understood differently in different parts of the world. Kinsky shows how communities behave towards water in different places, sometimes playful, reverential, fearful and – especially in London – contemptuous.

The rivers serve their imagistic purpose, and the novel expands itself into an intriguing and complex piece, however, it is ALL ABOUT PLACE, and it is all focused on how one individual responds to place, one individual who sits outside of these different societies, who is an observer, an observer and a tourist, and I don’t know if that is something that I’m that keen to be praising in this evermore fracturing world.



Think of the people you know who like psychogeography. No, I don’t mean the people who’ve read one book about a guy taking a walk, but the people you know who tell you that Iain Sinclair is a “genius”, who listen to Will Self’s Radio 4 shows (even I don’t do that and I’m a total whore for Radio 4) and who tell you that Robert Macfarlane and all those other ones I CAN’T EVEN THINK OF are good. Picturing these book lovers? Right, yeah: they’re usually white men who are like totally into rolled cigarettes, irregular shaving routines and like radical socialism or whatever, yeah? If this isn’t the case for you, then it is for me, all SIX of the men I know who LOVE psychogeography are like this, and I think there is a gentle but unignorable hypocrisy in the intersection of socialism and environmentalism. Also I think psychogeography is right wing.

Psychogeography is a selfish, individualistic, elitist, small c conservative genre, all of which strike me as pretty Big C Conservative traits. Psychogeography is a genre that focuses on the individual experience of – almost always – a well-educated white man who has VOLUNTARILY and TEMPORARILY removed himself from his own circles (and thus interpersonal responsibilities) in order to “report on” other peoples, or on nature itself.

Nature is not people. There is a reason why conservatism and conservation are such similar fucking words. The people who want to “protect the greenbelt” and “stop HS2” are the same people who vote brexit and use the 4 letter p word (not piss) to refer to the local convenience store owned by someone whose like great grandparents were born in Mumbai or somewhere else that definitely isn’t Pakistan. The environment is being destroyed, it is going, and as much as people would like to decry that Donald Trump’s administration’s ignorant policies (seeking to reduce the intended reduction in pollution) are the last railings of a dying attitude, that is sadly bullshit. Things are not – in my uninformed opinion – going to change quickly or dramatically enough for the tight balance between humanity and sustainable nature to be restored. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic (though uninformed). Most people are selfish fucking individualists and are far, far more easily tempted towards the immediate gratification of, for example, their oil investments continuing to make them money, than to earning slightly less megabucks and allowing species that aren’t humans (or the animals we keep as livestock or pets) to survive for more than a couple of hundred years.

The only way to “save” the planet is MASSIVE depopulation, which is not something a “caring” person can advocate, right? A person who cares about the environment must be caring, right, must therefore also care about people? Bullshit. The state of the world is such, now, that it is only massive state intervention on a global scale that can reverse or repair or at least decelerate the damage we, as a species, have done. You cannot genuinely believe in the conservation of the environment AND in the importance of personal freedoms. The rights and the choices of individuals MUST be curbed for the world to be saved; environmentalists – here, for a moment, like big socialists – are all for a massive state, and implicitly see the value of all individuals as equal, as part of a bigger collective whole that dwarfs any one person’s opinions or needs. So, to care about the environment means it is impossible to also care about individuals, and if you don’t care about individuals, you don’t actually care about people, because ALL PEOPLE ARE INDIVIDUALS. Keeping everybody warm and fed is not compatible with saving the planet, certainly not at present. True environmentalists must be socialists to the point where they discredit the value of any person, not just any individual person.

And the other, the other, the OTHER big issue is this:

The people who write psychogeography believe themselves, implicitly AND explicitly, to be BETTER than the rest of us. To take the position where your individual musings on the lives of others are worth more attention than other people’s musings on YOU is to imply a hierarchy, is to acknowledge an-



Psychogeography is a genre of writing about individuals excising themselves from their roles within society. To go and wander in the countryside – or the city – on your own evidences a certain privilege, not just the economic security required to either a) take this time off from paid labour or b) have the position where one is able to exchange the intellectual labour undertaken while walking and thinking for money. Being a writer, regardless of ones origin, is a privileged position. I am writing, here, from a position of privilege, and though – now that I’m not depressed – I no longer feel that my privilege invalidates the value of my expression of thought, I am firmly aware that it is privilege that has allowed me to get to the point where I can write and be read, and where I can afford to write, mostly (though not entirely #highfive) for free.

I, like many white liberals, can make a case for myself as a working-class voice, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and scrutinising the realities and the media of expressions of privilege is EXACTLY what we should be doing as self-defined liberals and/or progressives, who tend to be the kind of people who read Psychogeography uncritically. People seem to behave like there is something progressive in entering the wilderness, or an unfamiliar city, alone. But there isn’t. In many ways it is an act of cultural colonialism. Most people writing about the Lake District, to take a “less” colonial example, are not “of” it, and here in River, as in Self, as in Sebald, the individual doing the observing of British working class districts is far more literary and intellectual than the people they are observing. Psychogeography, when it doesn’t bother to ignore people – as in more naturey and thus even more socially valueless texts – tends to observe people with a presumed air of importance. It is the eternal idea that we have been asked to do by writers, which is to see their thoughts and observances as “better”, more valid, than those of – for want of a better word – ordinary people. (Yes, I know I’m saying this in writing.)

Now, the trad critique of this borderline “we’re sick of experts” argument is that somebody has to record existence and that writers who do so, do not think they’re inherently superior to those they write about. They think they are of them, they think they are part of them. But if they’re not, then they’re not.

Writing about one’s own community, or communities one has a genuine connection to in another place, is not condescending, but when anyone others anyone else, whenever anyone describes people *unlike* them, aimed at a readership *like* them, there is an implicit distancing, an implicit condescension. Kinsky’s descriptions of other European migrants living isolated lives in East London have a validity: though her narrator has more education, i.e. more cultural capital, than these people, she is as similarly “alien” in this location. She wanders London as a place that is unfamiliar – familiar enough to understand, but unfamiliar enough to be interesting. However, when she encounters white working class Londoners she – as to be fucking honest I do – has a disconnect. These people live amongst grey London with an attitude of familiarity and a casual sense of entitlement that only really exists in rich people in the rest of the country. Working class Londoners may be more friendly than middle class Londoners, but they still have that raucous tone of self-importance.

I feel like I’m knocking London here, and that really isn’t my intention, but meh, fuck it, London can handle my mild critique in the midst of a takedown of an entire genre of literature. 


Kinksy, actually, disproves my earlier comment about psychogeography reducing the importance of people. For though she does, yes, fail to connect with people who claim a firmer connection to some of the places where she is, she repeatedly manages to evoke a very strong sense of lives that are also travelling, also moving, also – like rivers – unrooted, non-static.

Psychogeography is a weird genre in that it is both very masculine but not very macho. What I meant above about River not being enough of an escape from the genre as I’d have liked was that, to be blunt, it was as sexless as psychogeography normally is. I’m trying to avoid writing that normalises sexual repression, and – as a genre – psychogeography is about as chaste as you can get (certainly in the bloodless texts I’ve read).

There is no plot of desire within River, but as a text about emotions and physicality it is present, though never central. River does consider the lives of disparate people, River does offer a nuanced portrait of people from different classes without trying to sell preservation and conservation as important fucking goals. This is a text about people, not about nature, and though it fails in many of the ways that psychogeography as a genre fails to address wider societal problems, it succeeds a damn sight better than a lot of similar texts. For many people, this won’t be a problem, it’s just me with my class-confusion and thus bizarre and confused disapproval of so many things from so many angles. Well, at least since Brexit I don’t have to defend Wales or Middle England any more. Londoners, you were right: they all are a bunch of dogging, racist Morris dancers.


I’ve spent almost a month working on this, on and off. Like the two many cooks thing, but with TIME, innit?


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Scott Manley Hadley

is a poet now (apparently) and blogs at



Between reading the majority of Moving Kings (Joshua Cohen, published July 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) and sitting down to write this review, I’ve had a massive breakdown. Not the most massive a breakdown you can have – no psychosis – but weeks of panic attacks while hiding inside cupboards, screaming into the sky in public, lying on pavements and weeping, daily nightmares that seep into conscious premonitions of death, going to city farms to stare at goats instead of going to work, full days spent in the psychiatric section of A&E, so, like, yeah, a full-on breakdown.

I don’t think Moving Kings and my breakdown are necessarily linked, but I think the context of my mental decline – and the book’s inability to arrest it – is significant. For me, a great book stops the world. A great book, any great book, is as compatible with a breakdown as staring at a cute dog is compatible with not smiling. Moving Kings – though inarguably a “good book” – isn’t the kind of book one can read to reawaken their dying soul. Moving Kings is well-written, well-structured and engages with interesting topics, but Moving Kings doesn’t feel in any way remotely fresh. Maybe the pop culture and the technology is up to date, but Cohen’s massively acclaimed novel (also newly released over in Trump’s America) didn’t do anything to me I hadn’t felt done to my reading self many, many times before. It reminded me of all those books that increasingly underwhelmed me as I read my way through – and then beyond – the texts that claim to the title of The Great American Novel.

Moving Kings is a beefy, blokey, book about American perceptions of contemporary Israel, mostly focused on the Jewish diaspora of New York and its environs. There are multiple protagonists: the first to be introduced is David King, a wealthy baby boomer who runs a logistics company that shares its name with the novel. He is divorced, he’s into drugs and fucking his secretary (who’s like clingy, y’know), but most importantly he’s into making shitloads of cash. He’s a typical American [anti-] hero: wealth accumulated by effort, combined with a vestige of empathy in a character overwhelmed by flaws. One of these flaws – and the one that will prove to be significant – is his paternalistic wish to look after Yoav, his Israeli cousin’s son, met once when Yoav was a child. In the present day, David arranges for his company to give Yoav (and his buddy Uri) some back-hand, visa-free work when they arrive into America following their national service. Together, Yoav and Uri try to integrate into the American youth culture scene (or whatever) but are frustrated by a) a language barrier (minor for Yoav but severe for Uri) and b) the repercussions of their time spent in the Israeli army. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Cohen weaves together his multiple strands and multiple flashbacks very well, there are great passages of description and evocative descriptions of male ennui. It ticks all those boxes of books that are meant to be “good”: race and identity are explored; the immigrant and the touristic experience of being culturally overwhelmed; regret and ageing; mortality and railing against it… The big themes of American letters are here, and big themes related to the contemporary world crop up too: the problems with landlords and increasing rents and overseas property investors; money and international trade is important, the way people structure their lives and their finances; people trying to connect with estranged family members; intoxication and addiction and the reasons for it; homelessness; poverty as the counterpoint to affluence…

All these big, weighty, hefty topics, all discussed in accessible and uncomplex but simultaneously explorative prose… When one pulls Moving Kings apart, it is easy to see that all the ingredients are present for a great book, but in combination they achieve something underwhelming, and – important – underwhelming in a familiar way. Moving Kings feels like a novel written to a formula, even down to its inclusion of a weird (and v male fantasy) sex scene in the middle of the book. This is the Updike, Franzen, school, y’know – American novels on big themes that are good, y’know, unquestioningly good, but when you’ve read one you’ve read them all. No, that’s unfair: when you’ve read five or six you’ve read most of them, and when you’ve read ten or fifteen you’ve definitely read them all. And, sadly, I have read ten or fifteen of this type of novel, and my appetite for them has long been sated, and was probably sated even before that weird Summer when everyone read and raved about John Williams’ Stoner, another underwhelming book from the same school.

I get it, I get that explorations of affluent WASP and affluent North American Jewish lives are different from each other, but these stories are presented in the same way, with the same styles and the same voices. Moving Kings was published by a major publisher in the US (as were Cohen’s previous novels here), and that is the kind of place where this book belongs. It is a good book, but it’s a good book by rote, y’know (I need to stop saying “y’know”, I know, but I’m recovering from a breakdown SO PLEASE JUST BEAR WITH ME), it’s a good book in the tradition of good books, it’s a good book that doesn’t feel like it’s taking any risks, that doesn’t feel like it’ll offend, annoy or insult anyone, it’s a good book that lacks bite, it’s a good book that is never going to be anyone’s favourite novel, it’s a good book without question, and – for me – that’s what makes it disappointing.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – and indie presses in general – usually do something mainstream publishers don’t. Indie presses take risks, have to take risks, because without risky publications they’re never going to get any attention. Indie presses put out books like The Wake, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Attrib. & Other Stories, Quiet Flows The Una, Pond. Big publishers put out books that are like books they’ve already had success with, because they are big machines with big overheads (MIXED METAPHOR) that need oiling. Indie presses have lower overheads, less staff, y’know, and get their kicks out of publishing literature that wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere. The reasons for this are diverse, but one similarity I find between books published by indie presses is their uniqueness. Fitzcarraldo Editions is one of my favourite publishers and they’ve put out many of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years. And those great books, those INCREDIBLE books, are books unlike anything I’ve read before. That book on football, that book on smoking, that book on suicide, Claire-Louise Bennett’s prose, Mathias Enard in translation, y’know, AMAZING books. By publishing Moving Kings – a good book in a traditional, riskfree sense – they have done something they didn’t need to do. There is no arguing that Cohen is a good writer, that his book is successful as literature, but it feels so familiar, so part of that style/canon of “American novels”, that there’s nothing to get excited by, and without excitement there cannot be love.

Had I reread Zone instead of reading Moving Kings, I would never have felt so low, so broken, so depressed. There is power in the potentiality of art. Literature exists – much of it published by Fitzcarraldo – that makes life seem worth living. Writers, thinkers and translators have contributed to the output of this publishing house that consistently maintains my faith in the changing and eternal power of literature. Moving Kings – as technically “good” as it is – did nothing to make me enthusiastic about the world of books or the world of America. I hadn’t read this text before, but I’d read its style, its concerns and its worldview. By all means read and enjoy it – there is nothing (other than that sex scene) to dislike – because Moving Kings is a good book, it does what it’s meant to do. But it’s literary fiction like loadsa literary fiction. It’s literary fiction that’s going to change no one’s life.

Moving Kings is a good book, but it’s a good book in the same way that hundreds of books are good books and that – for me – isn’t good enough. I want great books that are great in ways I could never imagine. I want books to make me hungry for literature and life and everything inbetween. Moving Kings isn’t exciting as a work of literary art. It’s fine, it’s good, but Pond and Zone are published by the same people and are both unique, life-changing, texts. Read those, if you haven’t. Do support Fitzcarraldo and other indie presses, because amazing, unexpected, books are pouring from them. This book – though it’s good – isn’t amazing.

o         o         o

Scott Manley Hadley is not OK and blogs at


SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS (Scott is up for an award – vote for him here)

Tom Jeffreys is a journalist/writer/curator with a strong interest in the contemporary Arts scene. Signal Failure (Influx Press, April 2017) is his first book, and as explained by its subtitle: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, it is a full-length piece of psychogeography about a walk from Euston Station in London up to Curzon Street in Birmingham, the proposed site of the as-yet-unbuilt terminus of a truly exciting national infrastructure project.

The book is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Signal Failure is well written and researched, it is informed and informative, and showcases a real and deeply intellectual interest in the many subjects it covers. This is a book about writing, about nature, about history and about regional identity. Jeffreys walks and talks and sleeps and reads, and Signal Failure is evidence of a great amount of effort and thought and it is thus a commendable and timely piece. To reiterate: I enjoyed reading it, and it’s important I make this clear, because the more I write about Signal Failure the harder I’m finding it to ignore the very angry way its politics made me feel over and over and over again.

I’m going to give a little sidenote on my personal opinions, and then come back to politics later, because if I don’t make a concerted effort to separate discussion of the book’s ideas from my discussion of the book as a book, ideology is going to get in the way. And Signal Failure is an impressive read and I don’t want to put anyone off it. I just happen to disagree fundamentally with what it’s saying, regardless of how much I like the way it says it.

Here we go:

Signal FailureI am 100% pro-HS2 and – I’m sorry Mr Jeffreys – Signal Failure did nothing to change my mind. I grew up in the West Midlands and have lived for most of a decade in navel-gazing London (with a spell in South Wales inbetween) and there is nothing that repulses me more here in real-life Kings’ Landing than the capital’s broad, constant, sneering belief that the rest of the UK doesn’t matter. The rest of the country does matter (unless London stops letting them vote), and what the Midlands and the North desperately need is the kind of infrastructure investment that London receives with regularity. HS1, Crossrail, Thameslink, Heathrow expansion, the extension of the Bakerloo Line, Crossrail 2 etc… HS2 would give Birmingham (and then Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow) massive piles of cash, huge amounts of jobs and enviable long term international connectivity. It is quicker to travel by train from central London to central Amsterdam (crossing THREE international borders, one of which is a SEA) than central Edinburgh: this could – and should – be fixed, especially if the UK doesn’t want itself to fracture along brexit-voting lines.

Right, while I can still stop myself from getting excited, let’s talk about Signal Failure in two separate and distinct phases.


Jeffreys sets off from the Euston Road on a crisp (love that adjective) November morning, and walks, close by the West Coast Main Line, out to the ‘burbs. He passes many different types of architecture and is direct witness to London’s long-standing historicity. Jeffreys strolls by churches and housing estates, old stations and new, and reflects on the city’s changing landscape and the way a very specific type of change occurs in parts of cities close to travel hubs. Combining impressive knowledge of both architectural and social history, Jeffreys talks us through the areas of London that will be demolished to make way for the HS2 tracks, setting the didactic, disapproving, tone.

The reader learns about the construction of the large, prefabricated housing estate that sits between the train tracks north of Euston and Regents’ Park, and the way it has changed over time. As well as detail of design, construction and demographic make up, Jeffreys offers poignant and personalised anecdotes about individual residents. He strolls on, and describes the change in architecture and personal interaction that happens as he gets towards greener spaces – people are unconfrontational by the time he reaches the suburbs, and people are even friendly, accommodating and interested in him once he’s out of Greater London. He follows the course of the Metropolitan Line and gives a lot of detail about the societal changes wrought by this metropolitan incursion into the Buckinghamshire countryside, repeatedly discussing John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary, Metro-Land.

The whole of Signal Failure is like this, really, looking at (often obscure) films and books and essays and artworks that tie themselves to the locations Jeffreys is beside and the ideas he is considering. These textual touchstones vary from the most famous works by household names (in a certain type of household) to limited edition poetry pamphlets published by independent presses. There is no smugness to Jeffreys’ discussion of niche texts, in fact he is quite egalitarian, imbuing no more significance to the work of John Betjeman than the work of, for example, Alan Corkish. Thanks to Jeffreys’ wide reading, he is able to write on a variety of topics with an impressive tone of authority, which is backed up by quotation and bibliographic referencing.

A recurring topic is an exploratory discussion of nature writing and its history, particularly that of its recent rebirth. By considering texts written by its foremost exponents as well as criticics, Jeffreys offers an investigation into the societal need for this kind of writing. He also discusses why it is so frequently a lone man, alone but not lonely, who voices these pieces. Other significant themes in Signal Failure include the creation of the motorway network, the redevelopment of Birmingham following the Blitz (with many references to the excellent Midland by Honor Gavin), the Beeching Report (anyone else remember this?), as well as poetry and prose inspired by travel and transport (not just nature).

Jeffreys tries wild sleeping, but is spooked by a horse on the first night (his intense fear of horses is a frequent source of comedy) and then tries to avoid the wilderness as much as possible. He sleeps the second night at his parents’ house in Amersham (his father a vociferous campaigner against HS2, even going so far as to regularly wear a sweatshirt bearing the slogan “STOP HS2”, which I kept imagining in the same style as “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, as they’re both phrases encouraging denial of something that other people would really, really, get to enjoy), and walks on. His musings – which are articulate and investigative – are enjoyable, and as a result of his textual analyses I ordered several of the niche publications mentioned. Jeffreys quotes from poetry and essay, from scientific studies and from fiction. He is a well read and intelligent individual, and his insights into the development of suburbia, the changing demographics and industries of the country as a whole and the contemporary art scene are all well-formed. I enjoyed travelling across the countryside with this witty and thoughtful man, his conversation a mixture of fact and opinion, journalistic knowledge gained from both personal interaction with strangers as well as desk-based research.

He describes landscapes and buildings well, and despite regularly chastising himself for his ignorance of the flora and fauna of the British countryside, seems to know a lot about the birds and mammals of his part of the world. This lack of confidence in his knowledge – as well an eight-month pause in the middle of the walk – successfully humanise Jeffreys, and characterise him as a fallible and engaging narrator. It is only when his thoughts and his writings veer too close to the unignorable pole of firm political opinion that he starts to lose me. Because all of the people who are anti-HS2 are – excuse my language – exactly the kind of privileged white southern dickheads you’d fucking expect, all of them about as interested in the long term good of the nation as Donald Trump is interested in the long term good of his.



What makes a text didactic beyond forgiveness? What is it within a film or a speech or a book – one that is conspicuously trying to persuade an audience towards a specific opinion – that makes it dismissable as a cultural product? Or is there not one? Is it possible to praise the graphic design of wartime propaganda despite underlying nationalist (and often racist) rhetoric? Can one attend Futurist exhibitions without compromising membership of a left wing political party? Can a hateful poem be beautiful? Is it possible to enjoy Neapolitan pizza – a respected and praised national symbol of Italy – and be a UKIP-supporter? Can anyone who believes in representative democracy and the smoothness of capitalism comfortably sit in a room with the globalised face of Che Guevara pouting off a coffee mug? Can we watch Casablanca despite not believing in the holy purity of war? Can we be interested in accurate reproductions of the past and still enjoy Inglorious Basterds? Is it possible to believe that World War One was necessary and still like the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Can songs of religious devotion be moving to non-believers?

The answer to all of these questions is YES.

Everything and everyone has an agenda – to deny this is naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take: all are products of someone’s mind and thus someone’s ideology (especially ‘Every Breath You Take’). Most works of art are imbued with an ideology that most of its audience would describe as apolitical, but that’s because most works of art pander to an ideology that’s so tucked inside the status quo that – to an audience from that society – the ways in which it normalises and standardises the lived experience of that culture isn’t noticed.

Some works of art are a response against accepted culture, are a deliberate and provocative attack against normalised power structures in the real world. Texts like this are not considered propaganda, they are considered protest and are rarely maligned for their politics. Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot rests here – at least within its own ideology – as a book sticking it to “the man”, as a piece deeply emotionally invested in an opinion and relentlessly pressing that through every page. And its politics are deliberately and proudly unprogressive: Signal Failure advocates “radical conservatism”, it praises maintaining the status quo, stopping Westminster from ruining the retirements of “decent, ordinary people” (Farage’s phrase, not Jeffreys’).

We are asked to see HS2 as a bad thing because it will disrupt many people’s lives for many years. And many of those lives are the lives of successful, affluent, people who’ve moved to the Chilterns specifically for a peaceful life. It isn’t fair on them. But HS2 isn’t for these people, HS2 isn’t being built to improve the lives of retired people who already live within commutable distance of central London, it’s being built as an investment in the long term success of the country, specifically the parts of the country that have suffered from years of London and South East-centric policies.

By positioning itself, self-consciously, as protest, Signal Failure betrays a deep southerncentricism, grossly confusing the government’s decision to offend the retirees of Buckinghamshire with being Londoncentric. HS2 is for the North, HS2 is for the Midlands – it will temporarily disrupt the peace of the Chilterns during its construction and then they’ll forget it was ever a nuisance. With the success of HS2 the UK will be filled with skilled workers able to implement large scale infrastructure projects like this one, who will then go on to complete HS3, which won’t even be anywhere near London, a sign of solidarity and respect given from the country as a whole to the North.

The people Jeffreys meets who hate HS2 are all affluent, Southern, successful: they are not going to benefit from the trainline and they only want to stop it so as to help themselves in the short term. They are retired lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc: they are all elites. Their opposition is inherently selfish and should be condemned, not pandered to. I felt scorn when encouraged to feel pity for a person who felt suicidal because the value of their property might be reduced – so fucking what? If your self-worth is rooted in the price of your house, you should be seeking psychological assistance long before that number starts getting lower.

The construction of HS2 will prioritise the long-term future of the British economy and help it stop being so reliant on bankers in fucking smog-ridden London. Opening the UK up with high speed trains will make it possible to reduce aeroplane usage (why fly from Manchester to Paris when it’s quicker by train?), and will show that we’re a forward-looking, future-focused nation that wants to prosper in the real, modern, world, rather than a bunch of backwards-looking isolationists who want to sit in pub gardens drinking pints of bitter with spouses who are also their cousins.

Constructing HS2 will be a sign that Westminster cares about parts of the country other than the Home Counties and self-important London. Opposing HS2 because it might mess up some property values and a few fucking lakes is wilfully southerncentric.

For a bit of context, UKIP and the Green Party are both anti-HS2. If that doesn’t emphasise that being against this project is either irrational or atavistic I don’t know what does. “Stop HS2” banners, blotting the front lawns of racist bank managers and pothead geography teachers everywhere in the Chilterns. And the Chilterns, let’s be honest, isn’t even a particularly beautiful area of natural beauty, it certainly isn’t “outstanding” when compared to the Lake District, the Highlands, the Pennines, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and most parts of the coastline.

HS2 is an important and necessary statement of interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole, and I think it is telling that a book written in protest against it is a book about a man walking in familiar places, meeting familiar kinds of people and going out of his way to engage with people who share his opinions, but not those who disagree.

To dismiss Signal Failure as propaganda, even in my best (long repressed) Brummie accent, would be churlish, because Jeffreys’ book is deeply engaging, and even when I disagreed with it, I felt something very strongly. I was exasperated by the characters who spoke out against the planned railway and irritated by the swift writing away from any conversations with opposing viewpoints.

BUT – and this is important – it doesn’t matter that me and Jeffreys (no, I don’t mean “Jeffreys and I”) disagree on HS2, because I have a huge amount of respect for his production of this informative, witty and engaging book. Signal Failure was a great read for me, so I imagine it will be book of the year for anyone who – like Tom Jeffreys – actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.

Truly, a great book. But one filled with despicable, southern-centric, politics.

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Buy Signal Failure




The following is a word from our resident bush-pissing reviewer Scott Manley Hadley

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Scott Manley Hadley is Open Pen’s resident indie books reviewer and he’s been shortlisted in the Best Reviewer category at this year’s Saboteur Awards. To win this prestigious award, however, he needs YOUR HELP, as he’s up against people who write and review for like TV and radio and stuff! That’s right, this is your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by helping a [comparatively] unsuccessful middle class white person beat some [comparatively] successful middle class white people to an award! #breakthewheel

But why should you vote for Scott Manley Hadley? “Who is he and what has he done for me?” you ask. Why does he deserve to win? Let me tell you:

Scott Manley Hadley is a “literary lifestyle blogger” who has been publishing book reviews on his personal blog, Triumph of the Now, since 2013 and for Open Pen since Summer 2016. He believes that biographical criticism is not just valid but essential – if he was being pretentious (which he’s trying hard not to be), he’d describe himself as a “post-Barthesian critic”. He believes that the experience of reading literature is deeply rooted in the mood and circumstances of the writer (obviously) but also the reader: a bad book is cut a lot of slack if you read it on a beach, while a great work of literature crumbles to nothing if you try to read it while commuting, going through a messy divorce or when too wasted to concentrate.

As well as his prose reviews, Scott Manley Hadley has recently begun producing a lo-fi literary magazine web series, Triumph of the Now TV, with guests including Ros Barber (academic and writer of The Marlowe Papers), Hermione Eyre (journalist and author of Viper Wine), Faruk Sehic (Bosnian poet & novelist, winner of the EU Prize for Literature), Eley Williams (author of Attrib. and Other Stories) and Open Pen editor (and former [semi-]professional wrestler) Sean Preston. Winning this award will help him to secure even more exciting guests for his web series and get even fresher, newer, hotter takes on the great fiction that is currently pouring out of indie presses in the UK.

Why will it be good for Open Pen if Scott Manley Hadley wins this award? Because (other than winning awards itself) nothing makes a publication look better than its regular contributors winning awards. This is win-win-win-win, so please, please, please vote for him.

Once you’re ready to get down to doing it, click here. If you’re uncertain what to vote for in other categories, we heartily recommend Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams in ‘Best  Short Story Collection’ and An Unreliable Guide to London in ‘Best Anthology’.




Forbidden Line is a brand new book published by Galley Beggar Press, the company behind Eimear McBride’s award-crushing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride’s novel (released way back in 2013 when I had hair and hope for the future) is a rip-roaring ride, and was so successful it lifted Galley Beggar Press to a prominent position within the British literary scene. Since then, GBP has maintained its reputation, putting out a smashing selection of literary texts. Doing what every good independent publisher should be doing (right?), publishing powerful and unique texts overlooked by traditionalist and/or populist mainstream publishers, gifting to the world great literature that may otherwise have been overlooked, ignored, forgotten or discarded.

Paul Stanbridge’s Forbidden Line is very much a non-mainstream novel. It is experimental, it is genuinely weird, it is focused (at least initially) on rural England and it makes many references to literary works and historical events. It is highly stylised and contains much wordplay, a Fowlesian disregard for literary convention, a lot of violence, a lot of intoxication and implies a heavy engagement with historical sources. It does a lot of interesting things, but – and this is the big one – is there too much going on for it to be enjoyable? However, even if the answer to that question is “yes”, it raises the secondary question about its purpose: is Stanbridge’s novel meant to be enjoyable? And, if it isn’t, what is it meant to be? Maybe Forbidden Line is ultimately a joke, a satire taking aim at a reader’s perceived notions of fiction and normative narrative structures. Let’s have a look in more detail, pull apart the text’s many threads.

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Forbidden Line starts off as an Essex-based retelling of Don Quixote, but rather than believing he is a knight errant, Don Waswill (who is accompanied by his servant Isiah (known as “Is” and then later “Is-Book”) believes in the importance of Chance and the negative effects on society caused by any and all written history. These two characters become embroiled in a 21st-century re-enactment of the Peasants’ Revolt that turns incredibly bloody, and they discover that they’ve accidentally been copying the movements of the historical mob, functioning as lightening-rod-like leaders dragging the recorded past into the present. Additionally, Don had written a non-consecutive encyclopaedia over the twenty-one years that preceded his meeting Isiah, but after he develops an intense disapproval of all written words the two men destroy the encyclopaedia and the crate that contained it. This crate keeps reappearing, no matter how many times they destroy it, while Isiah – who has phenomenal powers of memory – becomes the new repository for a solely oral encyclopaedia, hence the change of name mentioned above.

Still with me?

Stanbridge plays with literary norms throughout, in what begins as a rather trad Modernist vibe but becomes more 1960s/70s later on. We read passages in different styles, initially parts of Don’s encyclopaedia but later on extracts from other texts. We see diagrams, especially maps, and we read written versions of the second, oral, encyclopaedia. Time is liquid, as too are locations – the characters move in ways that match neither reality nor the normalised laws of fiction. (A bit like Mantissa by John Fowles.) The two protagonists believe in Chance in opposition to cause and effect, and Stanbridge’s gently present narrator also seems to have little interest in a structured narrative. In fact, the narrator often seems to have less control over his characters than they do over him. It isn’t the narrator who merges and moves time and place, but Don, or Chance itself. Through this technique the novel perhaps seeks to prove its own internal logic: the unexpected keeps happening, cause and effect do not apply, things are destroyed but then reappear, things that do not happen have happened, people share names with historical figures from the past and identities are coagulated and altered based on popular opinion. In short, it’s weird: the reader is knocked about, confused, constantly on the back foot and uncertain about any of the facts within the novel’s fictional world. No rules are unbreakable, nothing is predictable. The only constant truth is the fact that what we believe to be true may change at any time. The only rule that stays unbroken is the rule that every rule can be broken. This sort of arrangement has the potential to be quite fun, and in many ways the dishevelled and discombobulated reader can take pleasure from the book twisting them into confusion, if exhaustion doesn’t set in first.

The prose is written in an elevated style, long sentences, big words (i.e. polysyllabic vocabulary), and we are regularly bombarded with information, and complex intellectual theories, most frequently w/r/t “the hyperfine transition of hydrogen” – which I didn’t understand – but also about literature, esp Don Quixote and previous variants of it, plus the already-mentioned Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The reader needs to pay attention to every word within every sentence if they are to understand what is happening as meaning is often obtuse. For me, it became tiring – a novel this big cannot be this much work unless the gains the reader receives are equal. Joyce gets away with being verbose because he’s both witty and human; Woolf gets away with difficult prose because she writes deep emotional truth; Conrad’s seemingly turgid prose is a slim veil over the top of great swash-buckling excitement; and well-translated Proust gets away with massive, circling, immersive sentences because it’s gorgeous and glorious and art-affirming. Will Forbidden Line provide these climactic highs for a reader, or am I just setting the limbo bar impossibly low, judging Stanbridge against his stylistic peers?

My big fear right now is that my lack of enjoyment of Forbidden Line comes down to this: either I’m not as clever as I think I am or Paul Stanbridge isn’t.

Forbidden Line is full of conflicting and exploratory and intellectual themes and – to almost patronise myself (the vice that keeps making me late for work in the mornings) – I couldn’t keep track of them all. Stanbridge has loaded Forbidden Line with so much stuff, so many ideas, so many letters in words and so much researched knowledge that I’m prepared to admit that I was intellectually dwarfed. I couldn’t cope. And I’m not stoopid (I’ve got two degrees). Am I stupid?

Stanbridge’s prose has a strong and distinctive style and I regularly had to reread sentences to understand the meaning. The book is fun, it is literarily playful, and when I was most on board with it, it regularly made me smile. Its disengaged treatment of violence, its use of Ian McEwan as a character and its extended section on previous adaptations of Don Quixote are all examples of elements of the text that combined to make me feel uncertain where to look with my mind’s eye.

And there is a lot here to be enjoyed. Multiple time streams and postmodern attitudes to structure, mixed media, twisted expectations, having fun with history and convention and questioning societally normal attitudes related to perception of the present and the perception of society. And there’s so much of everything. Forbidden Line is a novel brim-full of ideas and though I sometimes found myself floundering I feel this is deliberate – it is a shifting, complex, text ON PURPOSE.

Forbidden Line is meant to destabilise a reader and rail against the normative experience of reading even a [standard] experimental book. Forbidden Line offers a unique reading experience – there is nothing quite like this – however this uniqueness does demand a hefty intellectual effort on the part of the reader.

Forbidden Line is interesting and intriguing and a successful attempt at doing something original with the written word.

Since reading it, I’ve done a bit of research on The Peasants’ Revolt, casually, and also on the different versions of Don Quixote mentioned in the book. One of them – which I hadn’t realised – was a fictional adaptation in the real world, taken from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve barely read) but treated like a real life figure in Forbidden Line. Stanbridge’s novel has layers to it, layers that perhaps I lack the cultural capital to appreciate properly. Maybe the whole novel would open up, wide, if I read it in tandem with Wikipedia or I just happened to be more cleverer.

Forbidden Line wore me out, but if it was a lover, a squash game, a meal or a dog, I’d definitely consider that a good thing. A unique read, worth a go if you’re up to it.

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Scott Manley Hadley blogs at

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(translated by Will Firth)


That aroma of freedom arising from the waterweed is erotic and intoxicating because it contains elixirs of eternal youth – an alchemy that cannot be fully described because it is never-ending like tufa, the stone that the tiny tufa-makers have built their stems and hearts into for tens of thousands of years.

cover-una_566ecf511e21cQuiet Flows the Una is a multi-award-winning contemporary novel by Faruk Šehić that weaves an unexpectedly magical journey through rural Bosnia either side of the horrific civil war of the 1990s.

That sounds bleak, doesn’t it? That sounds hard. But it isn’t: Quiet Flows the Una is a perfectly pitched evocation of the weight that war puts on the memory, and how trauma effects the remembrance of place, of time, of home and of innocence. Quiet Flows the Una is an impressive novel, and one that avoids cliché and predictability in both its style and content.

As a personal aside, few things piss me off more than the popularity of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. It’s colossal bullshit, especially when you read as many books as I do. I’ve read all of and more than the ‘canonical’ books I’ve got any interest in reading, and I quickly find and plough through any recommendations I receive from the two or three individuals [who aren’t animals] that I describe as friends. I also read books that are by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past and books by writers who are supposedly similar to them, but even doing that, I’d still end up locked into a predictable space if I didn’t make leaps into the dark. The ONLY way I’m going to get myself exposed to different, engaging, literature is if Ido judge books by their covers: their blurb and their design. I write this to justify the following comment: Quiet Flows the Una has a conspicuously beautiful – and not plain – cover, which is a rare combination in independent publishing, where cover designs tend to either be simple (though usually effective) or ugly.

The cover of the Quiet Flows the Una is a composite piece containing illustrations by Aleksandra Nina Knežević (whose pictures are included throughout the text) over the top of a photograph of rippling water. This image makes clear the novel’s clash between innocence and wisdom, violence and nature, the divine or dreamlike and the real, the water and the land. It’s a strong book cover and the designer deserves a bit of praise.

When we open the book, we find ourselves in Bosnia after the war, in the first person narration of a combat veteran, a man somewhat feared in his town. This man – possibly called Husar, though this is denied at one point – is preparing to be hypnotised by a travelling performer. The veteran waits to slip out of consciousness, but before he realises that he has, he is already enveloped in his past, in myriad memories that we, the reader, are also privy to. We are in his childhood, we are on the banks of the River Una, and we are at peace.

What follows is 200 pages of glorious, rather intense, prose all about land and memory, past and future. There is a hole in Husar’s memory, a hole that seeps out and poisons what happened either side. He loves the river of his hometown, he loves the countryside, but as much as he tries to focus on the idyll of a rural childhood playing and catching fish in the river, he is regularly driven into thoughts of violence and destruction. The old Pagan gods of the area are evoked, as too is Allah, the god his grandmother worships. But more important than any spirituality, any divinity, is Nature, capitalised and important. The gods of humanity, of different ages and eras and empires and peoples change. Belief in a supposedly eternal god is undermined by the reality of the changing identities of eternal gods over the course of history. What people seek when they look towards the divine is an explanation for the wonder and the pain that exists in the real world. And nowhere is the immense power of whatever it is that did cause existence (be that a singular or multiple divinity or arbitrary forces working over a near infinite amount of time) more manifest than in the glory of the natural world, summed up and totalled by Šehić as the waters of the Una. The river purifies, the river cleans, the river brings food and sweeps away the dirt and detritus of life. The River is a god in itself: it is named, it is worshipped and it is needed, the geographic, emotional and thematic centre of the text.

Husar discusses his memories of fishing as a child. He recalls the best places to find fish and the best places to find the plumpest maggots to use as bait. These aren’t clean childhood memories, though: the fattest fish congregate close to where human shit enters the river, and the fattest maggots can be found inside the animal skulls dumped in the water at the back of the butcher’s.

The Bosnia of the late 1970s and the 80s, the Bosnia of Husar’s childhood, was a tranquil place as he experienced it, but the adult [doing the remembering] understands that great unpleasantness was bubbling up out of his sight, great unpleasantness that was soon to explode and damage his homeland. When Husar remembers the peaceful places of his childhood, he does so whilst trying to ignore the atrocities he witnessed and/or was complicit in as a soldier. However, as some of these events happened in the same places as his childhood joy, his mind moves, unwilling. When he was a soldier he used memory as a way to block out, to avoid engaging with, what was happening around him. He corrupted his childhood memories during the war, and under hypnosis he tries and tries to think only of the good in his life, but there has been too much destruction, too much pain, and the gaps between descriptions of nastiness get shorter.

Fish are there throughout, but the fish get more dangerous and less beautiful, the same with snakes. As a child, the natural world is something that can be controlled, even the human waste pouring into the river is washed away, it disappears. Here, in Husar’s post-war head, we dream with him and we shrink to the size of an ant, we grow and we fly, we travel to places he has never been and we witness his town imbuing the characteristics of a thousand global cities. But always we come back to reality and then the river, the eternal Una, to her waves and her sides and her fishy denizens.

The water melts the ice during the day and the branches, whose bark has taken on a reddish, wintry colour, briefly come alive, but only till dusk, when the cold claps them in chains again.

The river lives, and it has to, it needs to. It is better than us, humanity, it is wiser and stronger, and its continuance is a source of joy when so much human destruction is evident all around it. Quiet Flows the Una evokes the yearning for peace, which is here a dream as impossible as human flight, teleportation and Honey I Shrunk the Kids style shrinking.

Novels lauded in their native language can suffer in translation – we’ve all read an abominably shit though prize-winning foreign book at some point (Houellebecq anyone?) – but Will Firth’s work here is commendable, allowing Šehić’s images and narrative to tie us up with evocative language, suited to the form and the content. Quiet Flows the Una is a poetic, lyrical, dreamlike, novel. It pulls a reader under, bashes them around the head with glorious nature imagery juxtaposed with wartime horror. It tells a reader about a man who has seen horror but doesn’t want to live in it, who has lived amongst ruins and seen the reconstruction of a place that exists, still, as ruins in his mind. He wants to be a poet, he wants to be pure. But he is tainted, he feels. Though Šehić – who lived a life very similar to Husar’s – is not too tainted to tell his story with beauty.

An intoxicating and engaging treat. Recommended.


Scott Manley Hadley blogs at

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Istro Books
Faruk Šehić
Will Firth




Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a brand new book, the third novel by North Morgan. Personally, I loved it, which means that this essay might end up being very critical, because I hate myself and have an inherent distrust of my thoughts and feelings.

The novel has a tight first person perspective and offers us an insight into two years of the life and thoughts of Konrad Platt. Platt is an affluent man in his early to mid-thirties who leaves London in 2013 following the messy break-up of a long-term relationship. He moves to Los Angeles where, for the couple of years the novel covers, he fills his time with working out, partying, playing on the internet and having unfulfilling relationships and enjoyable casual hook-ups. He is body obsessive, about his own and other people’s, and every character who enters is described in physical detail. This is reminiscent of the brand consciousness of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, where each new character’s clothing is used to swiftly define them. Is judging a person by their muscle tone better than judging them by their clothing? I think they’re pretty much the same, especially in this context, where Platt’s favourite body type is muscular, muscle-bound, big assed – he’s into guys who have the free time and the money and the obsession with personal beauty to work out almost every single day. This is the setting of Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read: the international gay bro scene.

love_notes_72dpi_rgbEveryone here aspires to the same look, physicality is central, the Body is worshipped, everyone wants bodies that look like theirs and they want their bodies to look like the bodies of people they want. Not people, men. Platt has little interest in women, especially women’s bodies. Women are conspicuous by their absence from this book, which is about extremes of masculinity, extremes of man, it is a homosocial text far more than it is a homosexual one: this is a book about men, unshackled from a) the repression of gay sexuality in the past, b) financial concerns and c) the heteronormative societal pressures on monogamy. It is Lord of the Flies but in the entire world instead of on an island. Also, no one dies, no one gets physically hurt and there’s no one epileptic: these are fit, healthy, men who are living a dream.

I referenced Bret Easton Ellis above on purpose, that wasn’t throwaway. Morgan reminds me of Easton Ellis due to his thematic interests, his intense opening up of a consciousness and his narcissistic acknowledgement of sex as a constant male concern (even body-shaped food turns men on: see this piece I wrote about simulating cunnilingus on a fried egg sandwich). With Easton Ellis, however, there is always a threat, there is always violence or corruption or horror waiting close by (more so as his career developed), but with Morgan we are safe, always. Platt is always in a safe space. Some of this, perhaps, comes from his physicality – he is gym honed, strong and physically fit, he prides himself on his tough masculinity and he isn’t the kind of person who would end up in trouble, despite being constantly surrounded by other tough, strong, men. In Morgan’s evocation of this lifestyle there is a very literal “gay community”, with a camaraderie, a brotherhood, amongst gay men, and with this comes freedom and physical (though not emotional) safety.

Platt’s world of privilege is the thing some readers might find alienating about Love Notes… Platt has a highly remunerative part time job that he can do from anywhere in the world, he can travel anywhere whenever he wants to. He has no responsibilities, no pets, no children, no relationship that lasts. He is free to do what he wants to do. And what he wants to do is fuck and get fucked, and the world of social media puts millions of potential hook-ups at his fingertips. He adds hot-bodied strangers who are thousands of miles away on Facebook and they chat, sometimes fucking when their paths cross months or years later. Grindr’s usefulness is self-evident, as too are all the other social media apps you can think of: any software, really, that allows the swift transfer of horny words, pictures and videos with someone who looks sexy. Everyone has a great body and everyone is looking for fun. The world that Konrad Platt exists in is internationalist, liberal, moneyed, connected, leisured. No one is tired from work, just from the gym; no one has money worries, no one has real worries about their body because they’re working out near daily, nothing worse than being cheated on ever happens to anyone, but as they all cheat themselves or fuck men who they know have boyfriends, the normalisation of promiscuity is accepted as an irrevocable truth. With clear and frank conversations and widespread understanding of health, everyone wears condoms and even when Platt hooks up with HIV positive guys, it’s not an issue. They all know what they’re doing and everything is consequence free.

It sounds fantastic.

My main fear, as I read through this engaging, hilarious, novel, was that it would turn moralising, was that it would crowbar in an encounter with a poor, obese, woman to highlight the distance of Platt’s life from the lives of the majority of people. It doesn’t. There is no 2am mugging, no conversation with a woman who works as a prostitute in a supermarket, no death from drug use, no sex disease (do people still call them “love bugs”?), no fight, no sickness, no serious muscle injury from over-exercise, no becoming overweight whilst bulking, no stock market collapse, nothing. This was, to be honest, fucking refreshing: Morgan’s book is about what it is about, the life of an affluent, international, single, toned, gay man. It doesn’t feel exaggerated, it feels exactly like the kind of behaviour any man would indulge in if he could. If I could move to California, have a guaranteed income that required little work and wasn’t painfully sexually repressed, I’d love to live like Platt. It sounds and it reads like a believable lifestyle, and North Morgan’s real life Instagram account looks pretty similar to how he describes Konrad Platt’s, albeit with more books.

Love Notes… is a very funny book, and I was laughing raucously from a few pages in. There are great send ups of heavy social media users, of gym fans, of ravers, of whatever a non-pejorative word is for people who have a lot of sex. Even though I’m not gay, muscular, single or connected (unless having met the people who run Open Pen counts [ed – lol not even]), I could constantly relate and was constantly amused.

Platt isn’t happy, he often thinks about the repetitive nature of his life and finds it unfulfilling, but he also finds it fun. Platt is trapped in an aspirational lifestyle that he really enjoys, but doesn’t necessarily like it when he reflects on it. But does anyone truly like their life? Is anyone happy when they think about the process of ageing, of mortality, of war and famine and disease and hatred and prejudice and these flesh cages we are all trapped inside in an existence none of us chose to begin? No, I don’t think so, I think deep down everyone is empty, there is a hole at the core of every individual that used to be filled with naive religion but is now covered up with intoxication, the internet, entertainment and sensual pleasure. Platt is behaving in a rational, understandable, way, and Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a well-written, very readable exploration of a particular lifestyle. The lack of women (there is one recurring female character and she is not sympathetic) or consideration of money are the factors I’m sure people looking to critique the book will cling onto, but I think that would be unfair.

This is a great novel about extremes of masculinity, about gym culture, hook-up culture, drug culture, one particular strand of gay culture: this is a funny, smart, knowing, book, and one that was a real pleasure to read. Getting exposed to great, new fiction like this is exactly why I took on this reviewing role. It is emotional, it is intelligent and it made me laugh over and over again. My one criticism would be the lack of detail in the sex scenes, but I’m a very prurient man, it comes with the repression.

Excellent, recommended.

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North Morgan will be reading from ‘Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read’ at Open Pen Live on Wed 28 Sep. Tickets available here.

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at Triumph of the Now and has recently been writing about baldness and prejudice for the Huffington Post.

Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is out now and available in two formats priced at £14.99 and £8.99 online at Limehouse Books.


Scott Manley Hadley Reviews
The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes  (Dead Ink)  by Harry Gallon

[Buy Now]

Arguably the most self-involved book review of all time.

This might be a long one. I feel ready to digress.shapes-of-dogs'-eyes

Buckle up!

Harry Gallon’s The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is a novella, a gritty, earthy, boozy, druggy, sexy novella set all up and inside of Hackney in about 2014.

It’s all craft beer and cocaine and marijoowuanwua and sleeping on sofas and fucking with condoms and smartphones and Tinder and Twitter and pubs and bars and clubs and stubs and fags and cash and theft and middleclass, mid-20s angst about turning into an adult, the central conceit (theoretically) being that dull domesticity is brought about by dogs (all of who[m][i] are sentient) for the propagation and comfort of their own species. This idea, which flows in and out of the novel’s text like a hangover at a picnic, is not fully explained, and the phrase “The shapes of dogs’ eyes” recurs throughout, moving from an idea to an ideology to a presumed piece of prose – is the character within the novel writing the novel in our hands? Is this real life? Because it feels real, it feels like taking a short from where I live and it feels like many, many adventures I’ve had myself, because I too am an East London dickhead[ii], as every single character in the book is and – I’m afraid – there’s a pretty high likelihood you are too. Are you? Are you suuure you’re not?

I’ve lived in Gallon’s hipster bartender scene, so close that a friend of mine is listed in his acknowledgements. I messaged her and asked what the connection was, and she informed me that Harry Gallon is her boyfriend’s brother. This is even closer than I’d imagined. The only important difference is that his alcoholic interest is craft beer, and I’m more Cocktail.[iii] When I was a wannabe writer working in bars, I saw myself as this:

(That wasn’t what I looked like to outsiders, and that isn’t how that period of my life looks in hindsight.)

The difficultly I had with The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is that it felt like a terrifying flashback to my own past. I’ve been in most of the situations in the novel – I’ve worked in bars with cockroaches and broken equipment, I’ve gone from bar to bar to bar to party, I’ve passed out on strange sofas, I’ve coasted through months at a time doing nothing to develop my life, I’ve been to Pub Watch meetings, I’ve had conversations with chefs about GP[iv], I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany, I debated getting a dog for years whilst doing bar work, and now have a dog and am not doing bar work. The first change has been wonderful, the latter not so much.

Bar work is great. Like, I mean it, it’s the best job [I’ve ever had]. Gallon captures bar work excellently – the routine, the poor diet, the sleeping in, the constant drinking, the huge prevalence of theft[v], the normalisation of constant use of legal and illegal intoxicants[vi], the self-importance, the belief that knowledge about booze is the best kind of knowledge and a rising snobbishness that gets validated every shift by the shared snobbishness of your colleagues.



Eee Tee Cee.

And Gallon gets it. He’s clearly lived it, he imbues his scenes with a vivid, visceral, realness. There’s dirt and damp and insects, there’s drug use and fucking and dog turds under furniture[vii], there are all the right street names, all the right beers, all the right pubs and parks and fences, the managerial and compliance procedures he details are standard industry practice, and that’s all great for gritty social realism, but, and this is a big but for me: is it interesting?

Was I deadened to the excitement of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes because it was all so familiar, because I know these places and these people[viii] and these lives? Would it be exciting for office drone 9-to-5ers in the same way I enjoy watching (though not reading, I’m almost 30) Game of Thrones? Because I cannot deny that it’s evocative, and a lifestyle different from the average UK experience, despite it being one I’ve known first-hand. Gallon’s writing is full of description and emotion and energy, and is often quite funny, quite witty.

BUT where that wit comes to the fore is in places quite traditionally middle class. There’s a good joke about it taking as long to get to Florence from London as it does to cross the city in rush hour. That’s not a bartender gag, that’s a middle class dinner party quip, and I felt in a few places that the novel missed a trick by the level of comfort the unnamed narrator seems used to. We meet his parents and they seem affluent. He sleeps on other people’s sofas, never paying rent, and no one ever questions him about this. Reminiscent of that line from Withnail & I:

In fact, the whole thing is reminiscent of Withnail & I, especially the idea of choice. All of the characters are living in squalor as a lifestyle decision. Let’s go to another pop culture reference and bang in Jarvis Cocker’s line “if you called your dad you could stop it all”. For all the Hackney hipsters in The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, comfort is available, is there, is at a reach. Tuscany is a common holiday destination, their parents live in nice houses in rural England if they wanna get out of the city. Domesticity as presented as an evil by Gallon’s narrator is very much a middle class domesticity. Getting a dog, the evil action that signals the end of youth[ix], is a middle class signifier, a pet is intrinsically a luxury, especially one that is a breed, not a mongrel, as every dog in the text is. Pedigree dogs aren’t cheap, I know because I’ve bought one[x], the idea of working in bars as a precursor to something more “serious” or “worthy” or “adult” is a little patronising to people who spend their whole careers in hospitality.

The narrator’s life is an adventure, he has parents and a home to go to, a girlfriend he can move in with and a dog-filled future ahead of him. He isn’t trapped in the city, homelessness and unemployment aren’t fearful things for him because there is always somewhere he can crash. So although I initially described this novella as “gritty”, it’s not, because there isn’t really any threat. The threat – if one exists – is in the narrator succumbing to a heteronormative nuclear family life, which he kinda does, happily. The idea of dogs controlling people is an entertaining metaphor, or a fun idea, but Gallon doesn’t hold onto it or go into it any deeper than that. The narrator has his suspicions about sentient dogs, he decides it’s correct, refers to it throughout, never expands.

If I sound overly critical, I apologise, but I’ve a) been asked for an honest opinion and b) I find it difficult to give praise without also giving criticism, and I’m about to get pretty praisy.

There are moments of great joy and real emotional depth within The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes. In fact, there were a few sections I circled in my copy of the book that work as great little vignettes. This, looking back, was my favourite:

Evan came in looking jowly. He brought his short Scottish hair and black glasses with him, eyes you mistake for a frown but they’re smiling in faint autistic consternation. ‘5am Saint and a-’
‘Malbec?’ I can still finish his one sentence for him. Pint of ale and a Malbec for his wife. When I started there she had long blonde hair. By then she was bald. Chemotherapy, said Dee. Rumours of leukaemia, maybe, cap on, blue scarf. ‘5am Saint-’
‘And a Malbec?’ Of course I was already pouring it. Evan smiled. Pleasurable state of late night hesitancy. Glancing over at his wife perpetually. Did his eyes frown? Lips in a constant state of pursing. He’d hold her gaze across the room and hold her hands across their table.

This works on its own, and that last sentence, oof: a beautiful piece about love and mortality, capitalised Art’s two great themes. If Gallon can write so touchingly of love, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in romance as a horror, and this belief seeps into the text. A man railing against the end of his youth is a common theme, but the nameless narrator doesn’t really rail, he accepts it before he has to, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself to feel an anger he doesn’t feel. The narrator is charmed by a life he claims to hate far too easily: he’s ready for it and he wants it: his interest in dogs’ eyes and their “power to control” never becomes fully formed because he doesn’t believe in it. The narrator wishes he didn’t have the small c conservative leanings that are inherent to him and his middle class peers: they all kinda want the nice, cushy, life their parents have, and for all of them it’s an option.

I enjoyed The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, I liked its dirt and its truth and its tone and its use of language.

If you want to experience East London hipster bartender life like it actually is, read this book. This is exactly it. If you want a portrait of working class London, you’re in the wrong place. This is the London of artsy, hipsterish, over-educated, self-important, middle-class wasters like myself. If you’re interested in that, Gallon gets it down as accurately as anyone could.

Gallon’s at his best when he writes about people and places and things. The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes succeeds when there is no pretence, just descriptions of life as lived. Gallon is a keen observer and expert chronicler of hipster East London. Whether that’s the “real” East London is someone else’s argument to have, and not one – rightly or wrongly – that the text engages with.

Buy it for your bartender housemate with three degrees, or your favourite middle class drug dealer.

An interesting read and definitely not boring.

I’m off to walk my dog and bang a negroni. Until later: keep reading, folks!


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About the dickhead who wrote this review

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at and is currently writing a series of articles about being young and bald for Huffington Post.

[i] I don’t know how and when to use this form of who. I suppose I should, given that I have two English degrees. I’m gonna leave it like this and hope the guys at Open Pen make me look more literate than I am.

ED – Would then have to actually edit. Would also render this notation redundant, which would be a shame because I like it when you mention that you have two English degrees all the time. [It’s whom.]

[ii] I’ve recently received online abuse to this effect. Here I respond to someone trying to offend me by anonymously messaging me: “kill yourself, you hipster faggot”:

[iii] There’s one reference to negronis in the whole book, though, which either dates the text or shows that me and Gallon aren’t quite so similar after all…

[iv] Which means “Gross Profit”, though Gallon doesn’t say and doesn’t seem to acknowledge this might be something a reader wouldn’t know. Likewise, the afore-mentioned Pub Watch meetings. What are they? I reckon you could work it out from the context, but I didn’t have to, because I’ve been to several. I almost miss them, they evidenced that no one else working in hospitality in the area was half as tired, half as hungover or half as articulate as me. Created simultaneous senses of “I’m better than this” and “I’m not good enough for this”, which cancelled each other out and allowed an easy forgetfulness of my own stagnation. As did all the booze.

[v] I myself am honest to a fault, but am very good at thinking of ways to steal. I found a glitch in the till system in the last bar I worked in whereby it would’ve been possible to steal cash without leaving any trace (i.e. stock discrepancies), but rather than exploit that, I told the bosses like a good boy. What a man.

[vi] The main legal high I’m referring to here is caffeine. People who’ve never ridden the brown donkey don’t how deep you can go. When I used to do dull office work I figured out that the most wasted I could get at 9.30am (without suspicion or judgement) was to drink an entire, strong, cafetiere of Taylors of Harrogate’s ‘Hot Lava Java’. If you’ve never done that, you haven’t lived.

[vii] When my dog was a tiny puppy, he did a bit of diarrhoea in a hidden spot that I didn’t discover for months. I couldn’t clean it as it’s permanently fused to the exposed floorboards. Here’s a picture:

[viii] What the earlier-mentioned point about my friend living with Gallon’s brother means is that I know people who know Gallon, our degree of separation is one at best, in fact we may have even crossed paths or piss streams in a warehouse in Hackney at some point over the last few years. We may have made friends, we may have chatted, too intoxicated to remember, over a pile of books on a handmade coffee table. Gallon is so close to me it is genuinely possible that we have already touched. And that’s actually a bit creepy. The characters in his book are also based on people I may have met. The narrator – no name – has a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub [before his music career takes off]. I have a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub.

ED – And he writes too, of course, and he writes well.

[ix] I’ve had a dog since the winter and I am still as selfish and reckless as I ever was, I just have a furry bundle of fluff to cuddle as I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling, hungover, shaking, in the middle of the afternoon. Help me.

[x] Expensive, but worth every fucking penny. If I could, I’d buy one every week. Check out my Instagram feed for shitloads of pictures of my dog, plus loads of videos of me singing Tom Jones songs. @smanleyhadley