John Murray does describe himself as a comic novelist, which is fine, but somehow that gives no clue to the weighty issues he covers within his often very funny far-fetched extravaganzas. For example, his 1993 work, Radio Activity, was described by Jonathan Coe as being “the very model of a political novel”. Appropriately, at that time, Jonathan was well on the way to completing his own highly political novel, What A Carve Up!, which he saw as an ambitious comic work blending anger with humanity and warmth, which just about also perfectly sums up Radio Activity.
Set in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, John’s Radio Activity has at its core the nuclear sites at Windscale and Sellafield in Cumbria, home to British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and he plays with the attendant issues, like radioactive poisoning, leukaemia, cancer, contamination of the sea, and leaks from the plants, with the story being told in five emissions.
In a rather less headline-grabbing way the book also takes in the nuclear industry’s relationship with the local community. It is clever how John brings in the way people will accept pretty much anything as the norm if it provides steady employment and a reasonable wage. He covers the invidiously insidious arts of reputation management, media manipulation, public relations activity, well before phrases like spin and corporate social responsibility made it into our everyday vocabulary. So one man’s sponsorship is another man’s bribery and corruption, investing in the local community is tantamount to the buying of favours rather than helping to transform the region, and so it simply depends where one stands.
John’s 1996 novel Reiver Blues – A New Border Apocalypse is set in “the debatable lands” of the Anglo-Scottish border, where the book’s characters slip easily between North Cumbria and Dumfriesshire. Historically the term “debatable lands” refers specifically to that region, but it does turn up in the T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom in relation to the inhabitants of the Jordan Valley. John Murray, one suspects, rather likes the phrase as he used Debatable Lands as the title of an 1994 anthology of modern world writing put out by his own Panurge Publishing imprint.
In Reiver Blues the ‘hero’ or narrator Beatty (who just happens to be a keen cook, an Oxford-trained orientalist and a Sanskrit scholar, rather like John) is troubled by The Guardian’s foreign reporting, and in particular coverage of conflicts in Albania, Angola, Burundi, Bosnia, and so on, in fact any place where can be found “paupers of the world forever at the mercy of barbarians and borders”.
He decides to write a letter to Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić, the Serb leaders, not simply telling them to change their evil ways, which he lists: “Political cynicism; gross self-seeking; homicidal mendacity; pathological inconsistency; heartless breaking of promises; endless false accusation; undisguised genocide; undisguised ethnic cleansing; flagrant ethnomania; hectoring for Slav socialism while encouraging nationalistic Slav fascism; arrant religious bigotry; blatant dividing and ruling etc. etc.”
Beatty explains how, where he lives, in the Debatable Lands, hundreds of years ago there were ferocious border disputes, involving vicious deeds and colossal cruelties, the crimes carried out by reivers, one of whom, a certain Willy Moscrop, haunts his wife and is a peculiarly unromantic spirit, being weighed down by “venality, whining, deviousness, idleness, the compendious weight of his petty sins”
The solution to the Bosnian war, Beatty suggests, is through cooking, and he recommends firstly a recipe for the Albanian dish of mehudehra, a garlic soup of sorts, which should have everyone “flinging at each other the same sort of amiable cross-border rhetoric of tolerance I offer you now”.
As an aside there is a lovely anecdote on John’s old website about him attending the Legion d’Honneur ceremony held in Paris in December 1997 for the Albanian author Ismail Kadare (a favourite here, and fortunately the local library seems fond of stocking his books), and how he got interviewed for Albanian TV, being the sole representative of a country neither French nor Albanian.
The other recipe Beatty shares is for patlican dolmasi, or warm stuffed aubergines from Turkish Sarajevo, which he claims is so truly mouth-watering that nobody could be “frightened of or suppress or antagonise a people who have given the world its greatest vegetable cuisine since the world began.”
If Reiver Blues takes in East European and Third World news, and Beatty is tormented by what he reads about “genocide, oppression, mutilation, feuding, feudalism, poverty”, and the way it contrasts with the “EU genteel economics”, then John’s later novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels has the same spirit. It is set in the immediate post-9/11 world, and takes in antagonism towards and ignorance of Moslems, the Palestinian conflict (and the BBC’s reporting of it as soap opera drama), and the impact of the Foot and Mouth epidemic on everyday Cumbrian life, without beating the reader about the head with sanctimony.
One of the most serious issues John writes about in his books is dementia. George’s magnificent mother Mildred in John Dory is struck down by the condition, and he describes poignant scenes during her final days in Whitehaven hospital. Then in The Legend of Liz & Joe the narrator Joe Gladstone goes to visit his sister Sally in the Cherry Blossom Home just outside Carlisle. To put it bluntly Sally, age 76, has “lost her marbles”.
As Joe says: “The opposite of being driven and directed is being unfocused, divergent, random and repetitive, and my big sister Sall was all that and a damn sight more” Joe visits her once a week, in stark contrast to all her old friends. He admits that he was “startled initially”, but embarrassment faded, and the urge to entertain her took “its proper precedence”.
It is a good approach to take, but not everyone has the courage to do so. He rightly concludes that senile dementia is a modern epidemic. There is one phrase from the book that sticks in the mind about being “hearteningly young, heartlessly old”. And here is another great quote from the story: “In the real world which was often as mad as Bedlam, life was not a business of mimetic tribute music but of real music however discordant by real originals.”
There is a lot of religion in John’s books, one way and another, and they leave a lingering impression of a writer genuinely interested in Buddhism, Hinduism, Methodism, and other religions. In A Gentleman’s Relish there is a quote about the artist Joe Clifton who “reads the bible for its poetry, its sinew, its potence, its beauty”. And biblical quotes are scattered through Murphy’s Favourite Channels, while more generally in John’s books there is the recurring use of the time and chance happening to us all motif, from Ecclesiastes chapter 9 verse 11.
In this sense John seems to belong to an old tradition where non-denominational people find beauty in religious texts. One example that springs to mind is Shena Mackay’s frequent use of references to old hymns, but maybe more pertinently there is a quote from Old Growth, the great Jim Dodge poem about ancient rebels which appears in his Rain on the River collection, with the Gary Snyder endorsement on the back cover:
“I have a vision: I and thousands like me, hordes of psychedelic relics, pie-eyed dreamers, pantheists with Taoist proclivities, Trotskyite bandits from the emerald hills, all standing together, wrinkled, twisted, worn, tweaked, aging and infirm yet somehow indomitable, fighting hard for what we love and what remains: family, friends, freedom, justice and ancient forests. So heed fair warning, corporate heads and greedy running dogs, mergered oligarchs swathed in the baffle of bureaucrats and bought politicians, you mess with us at the risk of grief”.