As the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced.
This was the game. In the real world, I was lying on the sloping edge of Melton Leisure Pool sometime in the 1980s, shuffling my child body down into the water; in my imagination, I was on the sea shore and the irresistible ocean had come to take me and make me a mermaid. It was a game played entirely alone, because its object was utter and perfect passivity.
Some people never stop playing mermaids. At conventions such as Mer-Mania in North Carolina, Merfest in Florida, or Merfolk UK, hundreds of adults gather to, as the Merfolk website puts it, “transform [themselves] into a magical mythical being from the depths of the ocean” and swim with the “Mer-community”. (These gatherings are not uniformly idyllic: Mermania 2017 was reportedly riven with cyberbullying and physical confrontations between merfolk, leading to the Mail dubbing it “the DARK SIDE of the real-life mermaids”.)
It can be hard to keep track of what qualifies as Legitimate Feminist Business (LFB), but here is a rough-and-ready test that you can use. Step one: be female. Step two: publicly criticise the thing that you think might be sexism. Step three: wait and see if you get abuse for it, and if yes, congratulate yourself on having correctly identified some LFB. Or as Lewis’s Law, formulated by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, more elegantly puts it: “The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”
Unfortunately, the abuse you’re now dealing with might well distract and depress you so much that addressing the LFB will drift into the remote realms of unlikelihood – indeed, at least half the purpose of anti-feminist harassment is to grind feminists down past the point of doing anything – but there you go. At least you get the satisfaction of knowing you were right.
Right now, for example, Yvette Cooper should be feeling the warm glow of vindication. On Saturday, the Labour MP gave a speech to the Fabian Society which in part addressed the issue of online abuse, including that targeted at women of all political affiliations. As soon as it was reported, she was being called “bully”, “bitch”, “Tory” and “saboteur”, accused of using the abuse issue to attack Corbyn and charged with having failed to defend Diane Abbott. The abuse didn’t all come from the left, but a lot of it did.
When Robert Trigg was given a life sentence for the killings of two women this week, it was much too late. Not just because it came six years after the death of Susan Nicholson – who Trigg murdered in 2011 – but because in 2011, he should already have been convicted of the manslaughter of Caroline Devlin in 2006.
The deaths of both women had been declared not suspicious by the police on first investigation, despite evidence of Trigg’s controlling behaviour and history of intimate partner violence. It’s only because Nicholson’s parents sought justice for their daughter at their own expense – hiring an independent barrister and pathologist to reexamine the original pathologist’s report – that Trigg isn’t still at large, terrorising another woman in her own home, perhaps killing again.
Sometimes, of course, criminals exert great deviousness and the police have to exert even greater doggedness and ingenuity to catch them. That, however, is not the case here.
Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.
A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.
“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.
Before 10pm last Thursday night, the DUP was a shambles of a party whose leader Arlene Foster was responsible for the cash-for-ash scandal which has cost an estimated £490m and caused the collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The moment the exit poll was in, it became one of the biggest forces in British politics as the prospect of the party entering into a confidence-and-supply arrangement to support a minority Tory government took hold.
And not long after that, senior politicians were making it clear that the DUP’s regressive social agenda would be staying in Stormont. Same sex marriages remain unrecognised in Northern Ireland, and the 1967 Abortion Act (which permits abortion under certain conditions in England, Scotland and Wales) still doesn’t apply there. The DUP has blocked legislative efforts at liberalisation on both counts.
Over the weekend Ruth Davidson, the Conservative’s leader in Scotland, demanded – and got – assurances from Theresa May that LGBT rights would not be up for debate. Soon after, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview in which he declared: “LGBT rights are human rights. They must not be sold out by Theresa May and the Conservatives as they try to cling to power with the DUP.”
And as for abortion…
Well actually, as for abortion, there’s been a bellowing silence at the senior levels of politics. Corbyn’s formulation echoed Hillary Clinton’s famous formulation that “women’s right are human rights”, but there have been no specific words of assurance for the humans who are women and whose right to safe, legal abortion is routinely placed under threat at Westminster.
I always try to be nice to canvassers, even the ones from the Green Party (sorry, Greens). I do this for the same reason I’ve never been canvassing myself, despite having been a Labour member for a few years now: I can’t imagine anything more appalling than knocking on door after door to be told where to stick it. But there are, incredibly, people who volunteer themselves for this social horror. Without coercion or payment, thousands and thousands of Labour activists stomp out the pavements in seats where every vote counts and in seats where they barely have a hope of making a difference. They do it for the party.
It’s extraordinary enough that candidates put themselves through elections. (In April, I spoke to one Labour MP who casually told me they were still paying down debts from the 2015 campaign, and now facing the possibility of being unemployed in seven weeks.) But at least for them there’s the possibility, however slim, of a seat in parliament at the end of it. The foot soldiers, though – for the foot soldiers, the only incentive is loyalty and the thrill of the fight (such thrills being hard to come by when you’re getting up at 5:30am to run dawn leaflet drops). And they still do it.