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This section lists writing other than novels by Jim Crace. It is intended to give an overview of Crace’s career outside novel-writing. Where feasible I will reproduce the text of these pieces, or selections from them. For a much more comprehensive guide to Crace’s literary output, see the Catalogue of the Jim Crace Archive.

Material is grouped into the subsections listed below.

Uncollected short fiction



Selected journalism

Reviews and introductions


Catalogue of the Literary Archive of Jim Crace prepared by John W. Wronoski, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas.


Uncollected short fiction

Annie, California Plates’, The New Review, 1:3 (1974), pp 30-33. Click here to read Crace’s first published story.

‘Helter Skelter, Hang Sorrow, Care’ll Kill a Cat’, The New Review, 2:21 (December 1975), pp 45-49. Reprinted in Cosmopolitan and included in Introduction 6: stories by new writers (Faber, 1977). Click here to read this story of a husband’s revenge.

‘Cross-Country’, The New Review, 3:25 (April 1976), pp 47-52. This story appears, in somewhat revised form, in Crace’s first book Continent.

‘Refugees’, Socialist Challenge (December 1977). Click here to read this tale of Africa.

‘Seven Ages’, Quarto (June 1980), broadcast as “Middling” by BBC Radio 3 (date tbc). Click here to read the story that ‘marked the start of [Crace’s] migration from journalism to fiction’.

The Bird Has Flown, tx 28 October 1976 (Afternoon Theatre, Radio 4). Produced and directed by Michael Rolfe for BBC Birmingham. “Charles Sydney ‘Cuckoo’ Clock has a curious relationship with the police. Will young, pert, attractive WPC Drew discover what it is – or will her colleagues arrive in time?” (Radio Times billing).

A Coat of Many Colours (working title: Salateen), tx 26 March 1979 (Saturday Night Theatre, Radio 4). Directed by Michael Rolfe for BBC Birmingham. “In March, 1895, following almost thirteen years of imprisonment by the Mahdist forces in the Sudan, Rudolph Slatin escaped and made his way to an English garrison at Aswan. Slatin, an Austrian officer, and ex-Governor of Darfur, survived to tell his tale by adopting new faiths and allegiances to suit the occasion. His credo of ‘survival’ runs contrary to that of George Chesney, the young Victorian officer and gentleman to whom he tells his tale.” (Radio Times billing).



Have You Seen Our Chicken?, a parable of Christmas, pub. 23 December 2007 in the Independent on Sunday.


If it’s roughly 2pm on Christmas Day and the roast is almost ready to be served, then you can guarantee that yet again I will emerge none too briefly through the smog of sprout steam to stand at the kitchen door and bore my famished family with the parable of the disappearing chicken:


It was Christmas 1952. I was just a kid, overexcited by that year’s present of a model, gold Coronation coach and a full Colour Party of Coldstream Guards, only two inches tall but equipped with rifles, flags and detachable plastic busbies. Throughout that morning, I had arranged them marching across the lino of our flat on the Pilgrim estate in Enfield, north London; I’d had them laying siege to last year’s plywood castle; I’d had them marching in the lavatory towards the Queen’s enthronement underneath the bath. So I was reluctant to abandon these battles and parades (and my sling of chocolate coins) to go across the entry for our usual Christmas morning drink with the Bancrofts.


Charley Crace, my admirably taciturn dad, had already made his escape, of course. He was socially ham-fisted, and so had done us all a favour by rushing off to his allotment to pick the sprouts and curly kale as soon as mum had got her lipstick out. Couldn’t I be taciturn, as well, and stay at home? But my mother, Jane, made it clear I had no choice. “Be neighbourly. Wipe your face,” she said, “while I check the chicken and put the potatoes round.” Ever the caterer; there was nothing she enjoyed more than feeding us. I could not imagine a Christmas roast prepared more lovingly than hers.


Except this year, I was dreading lunch. I knew that chicken personally. It was Ferdinand, north London’s quietest cockerel. He had been pecking round the wire cold-frame in our shared garden for two years, growing fat and complacent on our leftovers. He had been, therefore, an uncomplaining bird, and cunning, possibly, determined to survive. He’d never upset our neighbours with any doodle-doos. He’d never pecked aggressively. In fact, he let me and my brother, Richard, stroke and cuddle him. He groomed us, actually. We loved and fed him like a dog.


And so, although he’d been fattened originally for the 1951 Christmas table, it had been no surprise when Dad, armed with a length of twine, a hatchet, a knife and a shaking hand, chickened out as it were and granted Ferdinand a stay of execution until 1952. He told our neighbours that we’d reprieved Ferdie for the eggs. “And for the milk,” I used to add. So, for another year, our dinner pecked around our garden, living it up on mum’s best food. We’d bought him in the first place to save money. But Ferdinand – too plump to move far, too spoilt to make do with toast crusts and dried porridge – was costing us a fortune by now. I used to raid the fridge for him, behind mum’s back. This cockerel was very fond of corned beef, I discovered by experiment, and slices of tongue. He was not fond of tinned salmon or pickles.


Now twelve months on, as Ferdinand’s second Christmas approached, dad worked hard to feel ashamed of his previous soft-heartedness – this was only a table bird, after all – and finally plucked up courage. One late December morning when we were at school, he stepped into the cold frame with a sack and took Christmas dinner – protesting noisily for once – down to the shops where Ansell the Butcher was happy -for half a crown- to do what dad could not. By the time we got home Ferdinand was slaughtered, plucked, trussed and gibleted, and sitting cross-legged in the fridge.


The Bancrofts’ Christmas present for me that year was a white Dinky ambulance. I’d hoped for a police car or a fire engine or at least a khaki military ambulance with a red cross on its side. “It can go behind the Coronation coach,” I said, putting a brave face on my disappointment. “It can have the dead king inside.” My successful joke only partly lifted my mood. I’d been dragged from my toys and my chocolate, I’d been forced to wipe my face,  I had been given the world’s worst Dinky – and Ferdinand, dear Ferdinand, was crisping up for lunch.


I cheered up though, when we got home. Again mum checked to see how dinner was getting on. I can remember it exactly: the Cannon cooker leaking smoke, my mother opening the mottled blue enamel door in her new oven gloves (my uninspired gift), her cry of baffled disbelief when she discovered that Ferdinand had disappeared – and that he’d taken all the spuds, the stuffing and the roasting tin along with him. My Dad was at the door by now, with his trug of winter greens. My parents knelt down on the kitchen floor and peered in at the oven flames. They even checked the oven with a torch, as if the half-cooked bird could have found a hiding place. But no -glad tidings of great joy- Ferdinand had definitely gone. We wouldn’t have to eat our pet. Hosanna in excelsior.


Now, losing Christmas dinner was no small matter, especially in a one-income working class family such as ours. A show of anger would not have been out of place, or a 999 call. Some tears, even. This was the meanest of crimes. But all my father did was laugh and wash the sprouts. And all my mother said was “Never mind.” She only wished that whoever it was that had walked in through our never-bolted door, whoever it was who had risked their finger tips to steal our Christmas dinner, and carry it piping hot away from the flats, really needed it: “I hope it’s gone to someone poor.” 


An image almost out of Dickens came to me –still comes to me, whenever I remember Christmas 1952: it’s Ferdinand and our potatoes, lit by candle-light, surrounded by a throng of street urchins, about to have their first good meal. They’re holding wooden spoons. Their mouths are watering. Oh, how I loved my mum and dad right then. How proud I was of them for their calmness and their charity. How I love them now – though both are dead – when Christmas comes and I can tell my family, as we prepare to eat, about the darling cockerel and what he signifies.


What did we eat that day? I hardly want to tell you, because it weakens everything I’ve told you up to now, everything except the love I felt. “I’ve got a bit of cold tongue,” mum suggested finally. “That’ll have to do.” Sprouts, curly kale and tongue. She went to get it from our big gas fridge. And once again, I heard her cry of baffled disbelief. We thought the fridge had been burgled, too. Everything had gone. But, no, she’d discovered Ferdinand. “Be neighbourly,” she’d said, as we’d prepared to go into the Bancroft’s flat, an hour previously. “Wipe your face, while I check the chicken and put the potatoes round.” She’d checked the chicken, yes. She’d put in the spuds. But then – to borrow Gerard Hoffnung’s celebrated phrase – she “must have lost her presence of mind” and confused the oven with the fridge.


We all sat round our galvanised kitchen table, warmed by the open grate of the coal boiler, that Christmas Day, 1952, not quite sure if our enjoyment had been saved or squandered, whether we would feel mean or generous to tuck into our meal. We certainly were smiling, though. And then I can’t remember anything.  Dad must have finally taken a knife to Ferdinand and filled our plates. My brother says he can’t “recall the eating.” Nor can I.


© Jim Crace 2007




Robinson Crusoe, a memory of a contented childhood, pub. 18 August 2007 in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine ‘Once Upon a Time’ column.


My father was a hesitant reader when I was a child. His own schooling had been cut short by osteomyelitis when he was about ten, in the early 1920s. So reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe aloud to me and my brother was a struggle for him – and a struggle for us, too. He was attempting the unabridged version which, unlike later robinsonnades such as Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson, was not truly a novel intended for children, despite a subtitle which promised “Strange Surprizing Adventures”.  Its religious overtones and Defoe’s ruminations on Providence and Commerce were lost on us. But thank goodness for my father’s determination (and Defoe’s testing prolixity) because it was those details, missing from the edition “simplified for the younger reader”, that most delighted me; those long, passages that described Crusoe’s boyish scavenging as he fought against the breakers to save anything useful from the wreck of his ship, his thrilling ingenuity in making from these smashed and sodden components a tolerable life. I used to ask my father to read them slowly several times, so that I could keep and equip my imagination with a written salvage log of my own:  “one pair of large sizzers”, “two shoes that were not fellows”, “three Dutch cheeses”, “seven musquets”, etcetera. 


Then – in a household of little other entertainment – I could amuse myself in front of the fire by mapping Crusoe’s island and putting all my salvage to good use. And on fine days I could construct a stockade in the green belt behind our flat and check the muddy lanes for Friday’s footprint. Never since have I been so thoroughly immersed in a book. It served and nurtured my innate and lifelong love of islands, the sea-shore, and especially flotsam. It also has become the enduring reminder of a contented childhood.


© Jim Crace 2007



Enfield, from the Sunday Times series in which writers return to the places they began, pub. 8 October 2006


I had been promised access – a warm welcome even – to the home where I was brought up, in what was virtually the last building in north London. This was where the city and the suburbs stopped abruptly and, thanks to the Green Belt ordinances of 1938, the countryside began, protected and uncompromised. Our ground floor flat on the Pilgrim Estate in the Forty Hill area of Enfield, was urban, cramped and nondescript, but I hardly remember spending any time indoors. A rustic paradise for kids was just a stroll away. Within minutes we could be scrumping damsons from farm hedgerows, spotting badgers on the fringes of virgin woodlands, trespassing in barns, playing “Spitfire” on our bikes in open fields, hearing nightingales, smelling slurry. Here was London at its most bucolic.


It would be my first visit to the flat in 44 years and one which, given the recent death of my mother and the distant but still unabsorbed death of my father, promised to be both fulfilling and disturbing. One of its two current residents had said it would be “intriguing” to hear how much the place had changed since I was a child.


I looked forward to boring him about the rough domesticity of the post-War years and what a happy household it had always been for us. I did not expect to find anything I recognised. Our coke-fuelled boiler (that had taken four hours to heat the bath water) and the open fire, the deep Belfast sink with its wooden draining board, the galvanised Utility kitchen surfaces could not have survived the decades of Home Improvement and DIY. But the layout of the rooms would be the same. And there would be a torrent of welcome memories.


But at the last moment, I received a second, less encouraging call. I wasn’t welcome after all. The current resident had been forthcoming. Now he was icy. He had discussed my visit with his partner and what had been “intriguing” had become “inconvenient.”  I was surprised –not to be refused entry. Why would this young couple want me poking round their home? - but to be so suddenly tearful.  Those sixteen years in our street, Adelaide Close, had encompassed an immensely contented childhood. There were no ghosts or unhealed scars. I had imagined that when I saw the flat’s few rooms again all that happiness would be redelivered in some way. Now it was beyond reach. Its door had slammed on me.


Next morning, when the occupants were at work, I snooped around outside our flat. I had hoped to peer in through the netted windows. Perhaps I’d revive some image of my father, Charley, stern and indecipherable, engrossed in the News Chronicle; or my tirelessly hospitable mother, Jane, busy with her copper, mangle and steam iron. But in closes such as this, especially nowadays, casual visitors are scrutinised, mistrusted even. I was twice challenged with a “Can I help?” I settled for sitting in the car and staring across the same brick wall, the same wrought iron gate, and seemingly the same patch of lawn that we had had fifty years previously, towards a decoratively-bricked, arched entry that was once always open but was now locked and protected by security lights.


Very little had changed in Adelaide Close. The public pig bin where we used to dump our swill and the street gas lights had been removed years ago, of course. There were no horse-drawn traders or boys with buckets collecting the manure. And I could hear no chickens in the yards, being fattened up for Christmas. (Our own cockerel, Ferdinand, had been too lovable and then too tough to ever make it to the plate.) But on the green in the middle of the Close which delivery horses had cropped short and we had then scuffed bald with our football boots and skipping ropes, there was now good grass and some fine cherry and acacia trees. Take away the bumper-to-bumper parked cars and it could be 1952. This was still a very modest, unexciting and decent place to live. Though not with children, possibly. I saw only young couples and the elderly.


Later that afternoon, I managed to blag my way into an identical building to ours (loftily described by an estate agent as “a maisonette, with GCH and ORP”) by pretending that I was interested in renting it. “Perfect for a single gentleman,” the agent told me, not liking to inquire if she were dealing with a widower, a divorcee or a bachelor. Indeed, it was hard to imagine that these one-and-a-half bedroom flats, before the Revolution of Expectations had inflated our cravings for personal space and private possessions, ever housed families larger than two and a cat. How had we all fitted in – our family of four, with even larger families as neighbours - and still had room for that freezer-sized cabinet wireless with its huge glass valves and the great gas fridge?


I stood at the door of the smaller bedroom while the agent proposed “It’d make a nice study.” It certainly wouldn’t make much of a bedroom for two growing boys. I had shared such a room with my elder brother, Richard. It was not quite large enough to take two full-length single beds and still open the door. I had slept on a short divan, bought second-hand from a War-time amputee until, when I was about fourteen and my brother was seventeen, I’d outgrown it. Then we’d moved into the bigger room and my parents had slept on a Put-u-Up settee in the lounge. For £850 a month, I could sleep in such a room again, access to my childhood happiness almost available after all, if I would only sign along the dotted line, pay a fat deposit, and provide convincing references.




I drive along the back lanes of Forty Hill, and walk the alleys at the side of Enfield’s New Canal, past the house where Charles and Mary Lamb once lived and squabbled, past the site where John Keats went to school, past the plague burial ground. My companion is the writer and academic, Philip Tew, a professor at Brunel University. He is from Enfield, too. In critical studies of my novels he has commented on their recurring themes of city versus countryside, and the dominance of what is false yet captivating over what is true but dull. Both themes, he claims, have their roots in my upbringing; the fiction is a product of the Close. I argue that my story – like that of suburban Enfield itself - is too unchallenged and unchallenging to be worthy of fiction. It starts off well enough, however.


I can at least boast an aristocratic birth although my association with Brocket Hall, the stately home in Hertfordshire – requisitioned as a wartime maternity hospital - where I was born, only lasted ten days. This was a house which had, and continues to have, unsavoury associations – Palmerston dead under a maid on the billiard table, for example; Lady Caroline Lamb, served naked in a soup tureen to the young George IV. My specific place of birth was Joachim von Ribbentrop’s bedroom. The German ambassador and Nazi foreign minister had been a regular house guest at Brocket Hall before he was recalled to Berlin in 1936. The family joke was that I was born not with a silver spoon in my mouth, but an Iron Cross.


After  Monday 11th March 1946 when my uncle Harold drove me (painted gentian violet to treat the thrush I had contracted at birth) back to Adelaide Close in his spiv’s car, fuelled with black market petrol, my life turned as watery and white as the snow which my brother tells me, hampered our return. I was not ill again. I never saw my parents argue. I never heard them swear even. I was never hit, nor come to think of it, was I shouted at. Our Close was the perfect place for such an uneventful upbringing, safe, undistinguished, and anonymous. A cul-de-sac.


I learned to bulk things up to make my life, my family, myself seem more substantial: the wounds in my father’s arm became the work of German machine guns rather than osteomyelitis; my grandma was provided with a gypsy background; my place of birth was evidence of my lost nobility; and the clattering machine in Greenall the bookmaker’s house was not for ticker tape but – I romantically approved of this - coded messages to Moscow. I would not admit to strangers to being an Enfield boy. Too dreary. No, I was from Tottenham, a tough and edgy place. In short, preferring the false to the dull, I learned to compensate for the ordinariness of life by lying.


And maybe this does explain the novels, as Philip Tew has claimed: my safe and ordinary childhood, my upbringing at the hems of both town and field, my early propensity for lying might indeed explain the non-autobiographical, landscape-fixated, fabulist books that I have written almost intuitively as an adult. 




My secondary school was the historic and snobbish Enfield Grammar, just behind the market square in Town. I showed up there, aged eleven, with the wrong class background (working), the wrong accent (Norf Lunnon) and, most problematically for a self-conscious boy, the wrong blazer - cheap wool from the Co-op warehouse in Leman Street rather than the glossy barathea with metal buttons sported by our better-off contemporaries.


Enfield in those days was a divided borough. “Town” to the west, where all the parks and the big houses were. And to the east, in a strip along the Hertford Road, the glumly named localities – “suburbs” is not the word - of Ponders End, the Wash, Brimsdown and Freezywater, where all the council housing and the factories were.


Town has an eerie familiarity – it has hardly changed at all, except of course that traffic is heavy, managed and one-way and parking is hard to find unless you want to bump up on the pavement. (Enfield Council netted a useful £1.5million in fines from just that habit in 2005). There are no longer any pollution-friendly trolley buses, regrettably. The three enticingly named cinemas – the Florida, Rialto and Savoy - shut down long ago. Most of the traditional single, family shops have become outposts of the multinationals, in an unbroken line from McDonalds to HMV. What was Scroggies, an amiably cluttered shoe shop owned and managed by our neighbour in Adelaide Close, is now a Starbucks.


And the faces seem less exclusively white, (in the 2001 census more than 18% of Enfield’s 275,000 population, classed themselves as black or Asian) though compared to my chosen home, the Commonwealth city of Birmingham, my birth town, certainly the western side of it, seems hardly multicultural, despite an increase in British Cypriots and the recent influx of young Poles, serving in the plethora of new bistros and hotels. That makes all the unsolicited anti-immigrant comments offered to me by complete strangers, mistaking my white face for a badge of shared prejudice, all the more puzzling and depressing.


But there are enduring reminders of how it used to be: the local, workmanlike, slightly Australian accent which despite my four decades of separation I soon catch myself “norfing” into; the stalls and trestles (where there has been a weekly market since 1303), around the octagonal market house with its eight teak columns; the pubs, familiar, despite their insensitive renaming (The George, where I did my underage drinking, is inexplicably The Goose); the Victorian fountain on the traffic island where, as an obsessive teenage activist I stood in vigils against Imperialism, Armaments, Selective Education, and – on the morning of James Hanratty’s execution - capital punishment. And the boys from the Grammar School (now, thanks to my sole efforts of course, a Comprehensive, despite clinging pompously to its original name) look just like I did in the 1960s, still graded by their jackets, and their obligatory red-striped ties knotted contemptuously thick and short as a mark of their disdain for uniforms.


Here is a shopping street in a suburb which, though it seems more informal than it used to and certainly more affluent, has less character and very little identity beyond its own borders. It is another disappointment. The centre of Birmingham, where I have lived now for 32 years, has been in a constant flux of adaptation and experiment ever since my student days there in the mid-Sixties, replacing ancient blemishes with exciting new ones almost by the month. For Enfield to have remained so unchanged –so unspoiled, in fact- suggests complacency.


It is both a shock, then, and a bitter relief to cross the Cambridge Road and head towards that eastern part of the Borough. The cable factory and the Rolling Mills have closed. So have the gas, the soap and the glue works, and big employers such as Pickfords, Ripaults, Ruberoids, Edisons and Bellings, all evocative names from my childhood and from industrial history, have either shut entirely or down-sized. These were where our neighbours cycled to each morning, in their working suits with their white-bread lunches balanced on their handlebars. These were where you used to have a job for life, from apprenticeship to gold watch.


No longer. Jobs in manufacturing in Enfield have fallen more than 70% since the end of the 1960s, and they are still falling. There were about 30,000 production workers there in 1991. By the time of the 2001 census that had dropped to less than 19,000 (while white-collar occupations increased by 80% and students over the age of eighteen by 98% in the same period. So much for industry.) Now instead there are monotonous landscapes full of portentously named retail parks (de Mandeville Gate!) and aspirational housing estates styled in every architectural vernacular except the local.


What was the Royal Ordnance factory at Enfield Lock on the River Lea, famous for its small arms and motorcycles, is now Island Village with little more than its new-minted street names such as Gunners Drive to remind inhabitants that this had been since 1916 an important place of work for thousands of skilled “lockies”. Very little that is gritty has remained. That has its benefits, of course: cleaner jobs and cleaner air, an improved skyline, smarter homes with “amenities”. Even the toughest streets, once mean, dirty and too dangerous for an undersized boy like me, have been spruced up and are in good heart. But as with everything worth having, something old worth preserving has been sacrificed, most notably the certainty there used to be on these productive streets that despite its dullness Enfield was contributing to “the universe of things”. What could be more essential or more dignified than Manufacturing?




I take a look at Adelaide Close again. Apart from Mr Greenall the turf accountant’s garden at the back, the Green Belt started where our yard ended. Looking south from our front door, there were houses all the way to Kent. A walk, a bus, a train, a tube and I could be demonstrating in Trafalgar Square in less than an hour. We definitely were Londoners and city folk. But heading directly north from us –five minutes walk at the most, pushing a wheelbarrow to one of my father’s allotments - and there was Green Belt and after that countryside all the way to Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and after that the sea.


So now I do step north, just to discover what damage has been done to the Green Belt. I have already driven along the Enfield length of the M25 which once was farmland and dense woodland. I have seen how Crews Hill, a country lane with nursery gardens where I – and a bunch of flies - had taken meat every Saturday on a fixed wheel delivery bike, has been first filled with Garden Centres and, more recently by gaudy superstores for Leisure Furniture, Pool & Tub equipment, Pet Food, Aquatic Life and Home Marine supplies. I have read of Tottenham Hotspur’s attempts (with “sweeteners”) to build a £30 million, 56-acre football training centre at Bulls Cross, on land behind the celebrated gardens of Middleton House. It will have nine- foot high mesh fences – and precious few trees.


So my hopes for the Enfield Green Belt, already so oppressed elsewhere in the country, are not high. The village of Forty Hill itself, just at an angle to our flat, is not disquieting – though all the changes that there are speak volumes about how work, shopping and travel have altered since I was a boy. Mr Greenall’s lodge and gardens have been replaced by a roundabout and a retirement home, the unambivalently named Bridge House. (No need to wonder where that bridge leads.) The horse and cattle trough has survived, but there is no bus terminus. Where there were seven shops, there are two – a newsagents and the Village Wholefood Store.


But as soon as I leave the pavements for the paths of Gough Park on the edge of that glorious two-thirds of the borough which is still not built on, I am returned to childhood and to the closest that these London suburbs have to rural life. John Hill’s early-nineteenth century paintings of the area on display at the local Jacobean mansion, Forty Hall, show a recognisable landscape. The woodlands, once the favoured hunting grounds of kings, have survived. They are more beautiful even, perhaps because the Countryside Conservation Volunteers who manage them these days are doing a better job than the farmers ever could. There are even elms, a rarity.


Indeed, I am surprised to recognise so many individual trees from my childhood, both in the Belt and out of it. The magnolia outside the Conservative Association that we Young Guard socialists tried to poison with weed killer just before the 1964 election is flourishing. The horse chestnut at the back of our flat has reached a decent age. There are still a few of the fashionable catalpas or Indian bean trees growing on the verges of the Pilgrim Estate. The cherry at the back of the nearby house that my parents bought when I was 16 is in its final years but still leafy. Even Britain’s oldest surviving Cedar of Lebanon in the grounds of the Hall labours on, dangerously. It is, like so many of us now, hardly strong enough to bear its own weight.


I walk down unspoiled paths and over aged stiles for three or four hours – Seven Arches, Tinky Tocks, Hilly Fields, Whitewebbs Park, Maiden’s Bridge. I only encounter one other walker, with his dogs: predictably he tells me that Enfield is going to pot – “too many foreigners” - and that he is fleeing to Devon. But now it has become clear to me that Devon, or any of those thatched counties that I have dreamed of, could never satisfy my need for plainness and excitement all at once. I have been raised within easy reach of the rural and the urban. And in Birmingham I have found a house that provides exactly the same comforts as those I enjoyed in Enfield - close to country, close to town, suburban-pastoral to the rear, inner city at the front. I have what I was raised to value, both streets and fields. 


I end up, finally, below the three familiar sentinel sequoias above the allotments where on a clear evening the lights on the radio mast at Alexandra Palace show against the orange glow of London. And there I am able to squeeze through may thorn hedges to look over fencing to what had been my father’s best allotment, with views of countryside and town. It is well-cared for by a proper gardener, just as it always was during my father’s forty year tenure. I half expect to see him, spade in hand.


What I do see, though, is a pair of metal stakes at either side of the plot. I held those stakes steady fifty years ago while my father sank them into the ground with a lump hammer. He wanted them as supports for his raspberry canes. And I see that there are still raspberries flourishing exactly as they had. Now there are tears from me again. Here is the happiness that I had counted beyond reach, sentimental, English and suburban to the core. And here –two metal poles - is evidence that I have left my rusty mark.


© Jim Crace 2006


1979: Hearts of Oak, in 21: Picador authors celebrate 21 years of international writing, London: Pan Books, 1993, pp. 71-79.

This ‘celebration’, published to coincide with Picador’s 21st anniversary, included contributions from Oliver Sacks, Ian McEwan, Clive James and others. Each author was invited to reflect on a single year out of the past 21. In 1979, Jim Crace was working as a freelance journalist when his father was diagnosed with cancer. ‘Hearts of Oak’ is a moving recollection of Charley Crace’s last year. And yet there is very little in the way of direct description of the man, who was obviously a powerful and loving influence on Crace. We are given to understand that deeds, not words, were what mattered to him. The continuity between nature and man, exemplified in the figure of Crace’s father ‘oaking the public land’, planting thousands of trees ‘without any introspection’, is quietly offered as an alternative anchor to sentimentality, religious or otherwise.

From the point of view of literary biography, ‘Hearts of Oak’ may be interesting for the suggestion it contains of a link between Crace’s father’s death and his definitive move from journalism to fiction.


I seemed to spend the whole year in the air. I had been complaining to the commissioning editors of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine – with whom I had a freelance ‘retainer’ – that I was tired of home-based journalism. I wanted up; I wanted out; I wanted foreign travel. The pestering paid off. I flew to Montserrat in the Leewards to interview George Martin at his new recording studios, to New York to meet – or fail to meet, as it turned out – the singer Debbie Harry of Blondie, to California to drive Pacific Highway One for a travel piece, to the metal fortresses of Piper and Forties to report on disaster control in the North Sea oilfields. I found myself – on the magazine’s behalf – ‘rescued from drowning’ off the Lizard in Cornwall by a Wessex 5 helicopter. The unnamed ‘High Wire Hero’ in the four-page colour spread swinging from a 300-foot winch-line above a stroppy sea was me, courageous for a fee, reckless on expenses.

But most of the spring of 1979 - that spring which closed so cheerlessly on May 3rd with Thatcher, newly elected on the steps of Number Ten, predicting ‘harmony and hope’ – was taken up by two long-winded journalistic tasks. One was a report on Britain's ‘top surgeons’; the other involved more flights than I had pestered for. I was asked to investigate and test for the magazine the variable passenger services of Britain’s ‘third level’ commuter airlines, the modest independent short-haul island-hoppers, the cost-cutters, the shove-’em-in-and-slam-the-door sky’s-the-limit fly-by-nights, all with flights as divorced from intercontinental jet travel as a bike is from a Bentley. I sped between airfields and operating theatres like some self-locating donor organ. At Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, neurosurgeon and aerobatics pilot John Firth kitted me out in sterile cap, gown, mask and wellies and ushered me into an operating theatre to inspect ‘the plumbing’ of a gaping cranium. ‘Don’t admit you’re a journalist,’ he said. ‘If anybody asks, say you’re an aerobatics friend.’ Someone did ask, of course. I extemporised the pleasure of doing loops and dives in my Pitts Special. I’d been airborne enough that spring to play the pilot with careless ease.

It was not a time that I was glad to be so close to surgeons. Charley Crace, my dad, had learned that the relentless ulcer which had plagued him for a year was liver cancer. We walked one afternoon in early March to his allotment overlooking the grounds of Forty Hall in north London and then into Gough Woods to see what birds were there. He was slow already. His scalp was patchy with alopecia. His abdomen was bloated and tender. His pockets as usual were full of acorns. We heeled them into the ground in hedgerows where elm disease had destroyed the trees. We were oaking the landscape. Dad had always planted acorns, even before elm disease. It was not a mission. He heeled them in without any introspection. The sports club where he had been groundsman had – still has – a stockade of oaks, some more than thirty years old by then, from acorns which dad had dropped or thrown. The Essex, Middlesex, Hertfordshire borders where he had walked for years can thank him for a thousand trees.

We hardly mentioned illness. We looked for birds – and saw a pair of woodcock – and talked about the news that day that the Liverpool grave-diggers had called off the strike that had prevented so many burials during Jim Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent. Dad was not a sentimentalist. He wouldn’t want his corpse to cross a picket line. But as a Labour Party member he acknowledged the electoral damage that would be caused by the unburied dead, and the uncollected rubbish in the streets, the unheated schools, the strike-hit hospitals. The Tories were already 20 per cent ahead in the opinion polls – but we were optimists, expecting only socialism and cancer cures. I kept a good, strong, orange acorn for myself. I did not heel it in, but put it in my anorak to dry. A worry bead for Dad. I only had to finger it each day and Dad would soon be well. Except the acorn was forgotten, never touched or rubbed until it was too late. And by then, of course, the acorn had been lost.

In the following days, not depressed at all, I flew from Plymouth to Jersey in a Twin Otter, from Manston to Brussels in a Piper Chieftain, from Alderney to Shoreham in an Islander, from Glasgow to Tiree in a Trilander. I tested the world’s shortest scheduled service – between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkneys, a 90-second flight over a distance shorter than Heathrow’s runway. I landed on Barra’s tidal sand in the Hebrides. It’s safe to land when the lady in the tea hut can see the paddling seagulls’ legs.

Airlines opened and closed by the day. Air Wales – running out of Cardiff to Chester – folded the moment I booked my seat. Air Westward was grounded hours before I was due to take its flight from Exeter to Glasgow. But, the following week, Air Kent was taxi-ing for take-off on its first flight, for Rotterdam – and I was there, aboard the ten-seater Port of Ramsgate, depressed and for the first time in my life fearful in the air. My surgeons research had led me to a pioneer in liver transplants, Professor Roy Calne of Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, and to the plain-speaking medical journalist Donald Gould. I mentioned to both a patient of my acquaintance, a Londoner of sixty-seven, a bird-watcher, a socialist, a planter of trees, whose ulcer had turned out to be a cancer of the liver. ‘His doctors say they’ll give him drugs to shrink the tumour,’ I said, seeking confirmation for our optimism. Professor Calne, the liver expert, knew of no such procedures. And Donald Gould? He said, ‘Nonsense. The doctors are kidding the patient because they know he’ll die. A liver tumour can’t be shrunk.’ Except he was more blunt than that. I contemplated my father’s death at low altitudes above a choppy sea. I’d never been so airborne in my life.

At Whitsun we were camping in Cornwall in a field above the Logan Rock at Treen when the message came – via the village shop – that Dad was dying and that I should hurry to London. He could not walk or talk. We fixed him up with a sheepskin, to ease his bed sores, and a bedside bell so that he could call for help. The bell went all night long. I had to lift his penis into a grey cardboard bottle so that he could try – and fail – to urinate. I had to shave his face. I had to scrape the anchovies of damp wax from his blocked ears – just as he had done for me so many times when I was a child.

On Sunday June 3rd he seemed to rally. We carried him as best we could into the garden so that he could feel the sun, but this resurrection was short-lived. He soon was unconscious, only waking for the pain. On the Tuesday he went into a local hospital and there, in the small hours of the Wednesday morning, he died, alone. He did not want a funeral service. He didn’t care for priests or prayers or hymns. No flowers. No grief. Immediate family only. He did not want his ashes scattered anywhere. We let the crematorium dispose of him, and spent his wake disposing of his papers and his clothes. His allotment trousers were too old for Oxfam. I put them in the bin, but searched the pockets first. I found his wooden-handled pruning knife (which I still have and use) and half a dozen acorns. One day I’d find the proper place to heel them in. Instead of tears I shed my first piece of fiction for many years: a monologue by a woman whose father is dying called ‘Seven Ages’. It was published by Craig Raine in Quarto and then broadcast on Radio 3, and marked the start of my migration from journalism to fiction. The last lines were: ‘If Father goes, then what? Who is there left? Who is next in line? A foolish idea comes into my mind as I sit at the end of his bed: to turn my head and have him scrape the wax from my ear. More and more I am victim to such unexpected sentiments. Of course, I keep them to myself. This is no time for self-pity – though, sometimes, I wonder what has become of my good fortune.’ That was the year we swapped Thatcher for my Dad.

In late December I was in the air again. I flew up to Skye from Glasgow in a draughty, baby-Fiat of an aircraft, with bird-lime burns in its paintwork, to interview Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull. In his new incarnation as Laird of Straithaird, he was replanting the profits of his flute back into 15,300 acres of his virtually treeless Skye estate. I had Dad’s acorns in my coat – and was still looking for some sentimental place to bury them. It occurred to me that I should plant them there and then, on Skye. But this was private property, and Dad had always oaked the public land.

I took the flight back south. ‘We’ve made rather a speciality of taking writers back home,’ the pilot said, once he’d learned my occupation. ‘We run a Coffin Charter. We take the writers home to be buried. We took Compton MacKenzie back to Barra. And we also took Eric Linklater back to Orkney.’ It was a fearful journey with 35-knot headwinds labouring against the plane, its wings hardly able to locate soft passage in the dusk. I am more introspective – and more theatrical – than Dad ever was. I dropped his acorns somewhere over Argyll, but the wind might have scattered them in Orkney and beyond. We made the slowest progress one can make by air and, robbed of acorns, bereft of my good fortune, I feared that I would never reach the ground. Physically I did, an hour overdue. But otherwise, I never touched the ground again, not solidly, not after 1979. Since then I seem to spend the whole time in the air, gliding in the gusty thermals of my father’s death. There is no gravestone, no ashy earth, to take a bearing from. But there are oaks.

(c) Jim Crace 1993

 Click here to read ‘Seven Ages’, the story mentioned above that ‘marked the start of [Crace’s] migration from journalism to fiction’.


Selected journalism

1. Chernobyl comes to Paradise, a report on the impact of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on hill farmers in Wales

2. The knotweed menace, a survey of the damage wrought on Birmingham’s green spaces by this invasive plant

3. Tide and prejudice, a personal account of the land and seascapes that have meant most to Jim Crace

4. Waiting for a Miracle, a report from Cambodia for Médecins Sans Frontières


1. Chernobyl comes to Paradise

Sunday Times Magazine, March 15, 1987

On 26 April 1986, the worst nuclear power accident in history occurred at Chernobyl in the former USSR (now Ukraine) when disregard for safety procedures led to explosions and a fireball which blew the steel and concrete lid off reactor 4. The accident killed more than 30 people immediately; some 135,00 people were evacuated from the surrounding area. For years the fallout continued to kill trees and animals, contaminate crops, and cause illness and deformity in people. The local ecosystem was most profoundly affected, but the impact of Chernobyl was felt across the entire northern hemisphere. A year after the accident, Jim Crace reported on the plight of Welsh hill farmers in the aftermath of Chernobyl, and on their fears that a local power station might prove even more of a menace.

‘This was my last piece of journalism,’ Jim Crace recalls, ‘written between the hardback and paperback publication of Continent and showing a favourite theme of my novels: landscape, and a community under pressure.’ The original article was accompanied by evocative black-and-white photographs by Peter Marlow.

Somebody – not a local Welshman – has scratched the word PARADISE on a car-park slate by the Celyn reservoir, in the Snowdonia National Park. Few of the many outsiders who pause for a while on the lake shore as they drive seawards towards holidays in Porthmadog or Dolgellau would argue with such a judgement. Here are the glistening waters, the multi-tinted mountains of one of Britain’s greatest landscapes. But listen to the local Jeremiahs. For them – particularly since the rains of early may last year – the land is tainted, the paradise lost.

‘When I was at school in the valley there were 65 pupils, and the chapel was full every Sunday night,’ says 73-year-old Robyn Jones who, together with his son, Elfin, farms 428 acres on the Ty-nant stream above the lake. ‘Though we took our water from the stream in a kettle, we could make the best cup of tea you ever drank, that’s for sure.’ He points to the scattered outcrops of brick, the makeshift sheepfolds, which punctuate the hillsides. Each was once a family home. ‘But now, it’s all gone or it’s under water,’ he says. ‘They flooded the valley and its 18 farms in 1963 to provide free water to Liverpool from the poor country of Meirionydd. The chapel’s closed; the school’s gone; and there’s pollution in our hills. The reservoir was stocked with 60,000 brown trout some years ago. But I haven’t seen a brownie down there for ages. Not a single one. All dead. Acid rain. There’s no telling what the rain might bring these days or the damage it might do.’

Robyn Jones looks heavenwards with transparent dismay. Behind him, in a stone outhouse, officials from the Welsh office are running a hand-held scintillation meter – which measures radioactivity – over the rumps of Ty-nant lambs. All 54 are judged to be ‘clean’. A certificate is issued and the lambs can now go to Ruthin market for slaughter. ‘Not before time,’ says Elfin Jones. It is seven months to the day since Chernobyl came to Wales.


It was on Friday May 2 that the cloudborne remnants from the explosion of reactor number 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power station began to fall as rain over Snowdonia. On April 30, four days after the accident, the weathermen predicted that south-westerly winds cutting across the North Sea would confine radioactive fallout to Poland and Scandinavia. And, according to Britian’s National Radiological Protection Board, ‘if anything did come our way, it would be so diluted as to be effectively irrelevant’.

The weathermen were wrong. The winds changed. And seven days after Chernobyl the clouds burst over the Celyn reservoir and the hillsides of North Wales and Cumbria. The weekend of rain deposited a pot-pourri of over 30 nuclear contaminants on the two National Parks. Iodine 131 – the most immediate and deadly of the isotopes – had, with a half-life of under nine days, largely decayed during its progress over northern Europe. What did remain in the Welsh rain, however (at levels which would add 15 per cent to the yearly human dosage of background radiation) were the caesiums 134 and 137. Once ingested, they are easily dissolved and distributed throughout the body. Nobody is certain what human damage they can cause.

The locals thought little of it, particularly when the Secretary of State for the Environment, Kenneth Baker, told the House of Commons on the following Tuesday that radioactivity was ‘nowhere near the levels at which there is any hazard to health’. The rains of early May were forgotten and the business of lambing got underway.

And then, on June 20, came the news that has disrupted and dismayed the farming community of North Wales ever since. Michael Jopling, the minister of Agriculture, reported to the Commons that ‘the monitoring of young unfinished lambs not yet ready for market in certain areas of Cumbria and North Wales indicates higher levels of radio-caesium than in the rest of the country’. The figures were rather more alarming than the minister was prepared to admit. Random sampling of sheep muscle and liver in Gwynedd had revealed levels of caesiums up to 4216 becquerels per kilogram. The ‘action level’ for lamb or mutton (rather than a safety or danger level) had been established by British governments as 1000bqs/kg. In Sweden the level had been set at a more cautious 300bqs/kg.

The half-life of caesium 137, the predominant isotope found in the samples, was known to be approximately 30 years. But the assumption was that caesium 137 in a living body would be naturally excreted. Ninety days was the more conservative estimate. However, the farmers of Wales were happy to believe the whisper from Whitehall that their sheep would be ‘clean’ within 30 days. In the meantime, the Ministry of Agriculture had little choice but to prevent more Welsh lamb from entering the food chain. There would be, therefore, a ban on the movement and slaughter of sheep within parts of Snowdonia (and Cumbria) for 21 days. Robyn Jones’s flocks, together with those of 5100 other Welsh farmers with holdings from Holy Island in the west to Lake Vyrnwy in the south to Rhyl on the northern coast, were to be as confined and inert as camels in a safari park.


The year 1986 had not been a good one for Welsh hill farmers. The droughts of the previous summer and an unusually severe winter had delayed the spring growth of both lambs and grazing. Despite a system of ‘hill compensatory allowances’ and price guarantees, many of the smaller holders described themselves as ‘under pressure’.

‘We’re in the survival business,’ says Bernard Malethan who, with the help of his wife Glenys, ‘Wyn the YTS’, and a shed of ageing machinery, breeds from 500 hardy pure-bred Welsh mountain ewes on poor-quality land to the south of Colwyn Bay. ‘The squeeze is on. The banks are getting jittery. Land prices are tumbling. There is no wealth in these farms. We’re not complaining. Our community is close-knit, slightly isolated, yet going well. But life is not easy for us as it might be for some farmers in the Home Counties.’ For him and his colleagues the working vehicle is more likely to be a J-registered Land Rover or a converted Post Office van than the newish Range Rover usually associated with farming life. Their homes are mostly plain, with few signs of conspicuous consumption, though enriched by the smells of solid fuel stoves and drying waterproofs, and by scenery of such magnificence that there is hardly a day in the year when the view from their windows is not punctuated by the red and blue cagoules of the tourists who count the cynefins (or sheep-walks) as an extension of the public domain.

‘You can’t eat scenery and you can’t bank fresh air,’ say the farmers; yet the benefits of landscape and culture are clearly powerful inducements to remain in the hills. It is a land of stone walls, wind and (most of all) a rain which echoes the curiously watery cadences of the Welsh tongue. Here are found the only two constituencies with Plaid Cymru MPs. Even though it is generally English voices that are heard behind the counters of shops and hotels or living off such ‘fireside talents’ as pottery and candlestick making, the children of these newcomers are ‘Welsh within a year’. They attend local schools where everything from physics to French is taught in ‘the language of heaven’.

‘I’m embarrassed by city friends who say, "My God, you’ve got a hard life!"’ says John Hooson, who farms at Pentrefoelas. ‘Compared to what? Compared to people in London, living under the threat of redundancy and travelling to and from work for two hours on the train each day?’ How does that measure up, he wonders, against his neighbourhood, his lifestyle? There was one crime last year in Pentrefoelas, the theft of a goose. The resident policeman – despite 18 road accidents on the A5 and the 22,000 holiday-makers who visited the village’s public lavatory on one particularly busy August weekend – had so little to do that he was moved elsewhere.

It is true that life is not often leisurely. There is the routine of husbandry, the cycle of seasonal appointments, lambing, ditching, hedging, shearing, cutting silage, working dogs, maintaining ancient stone walls against the pressure of wind, ramblers and (not infrequently in North Wales) the occasional earth tremor. But farmers talk of being ‘woven into the landscape’, of having ‘soil in their blood’. ‘I would not claim to be downtrodden,’ says John Hooson. ‘Our life is tough. We grapple with the elements, single handed. But we have chosen to stay. We are volunteers.’


John and Nesta Hooson were in Venice when the restrictions were imposed. John spotted a map of Wales in a British newspaper with a shaded area covering Pentrefoelas. He returned to Wales expecting a short-lived disruption. He was to be disappointed. After three weeks the restrictions were reimposed. Caesium levels in lambs were not dropping as predicted. They were rising. Readings of more than 4100bqs/kg were to be recorded in Meironydd, Aberconwy, and Montgomery in mid-September, three months after the end of the supposed half-life of caesium in live sheep.

‘By mid-July we had begun to get nervous,’ says Hooson, who farms in the traditional hafod and hendre (upland and lowland) style, with 500 acres of the poorest, grade five, land around his 12th-century farmhouse, Plas Iolyn. ‘Still, compare to the Bhopal disaster, this was a mere hiccup. But how did officialdom cope? They were running about like chickens with their heads cut off.’

He presents a picture of husbandry during a normal year with spring lambs progressing from birth to marketplace on a carefully modulated ‘conveyor belt’. The farmer is constantly ‘removing mouths’. The lambs that are mature in June are sold, and grazing is freed for the smaller lambs to reach maturity in July. ‘Now we couldn’t move sheep off our land,’ says Hooson. What happens in these circumstances? ‘The mature lamb is competing with its siblings for food. It loses bloom. It deteriorates like an overripe fruit and its value in the marketplace drops. Your land is grazed into the ground and that includes land that was earmarked as hay and silage for the winter. You’ve got rogue tups on your hands. They’re randy and running free, working the fat off their backs, causing a nuisance. You’ve had to spend extra money on dipping and dosing for fluke and worm. You’ve told your bank manager that the overdraft is soon to come down. Now, suddenly, you can’t sell lambs. You have no cash flow. And there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Except protest.


On Wednesday, September 3, the small and normally quiescent town of Llanwrst in Aberconwy became the unlikely setting for a near riot. In late August, after two months of forced internment for the flocks in the restricted areas, a ‘mark and release’ scheme had been introduced. ‘Chernobyl specials’ or ‘blues’, as the lambs became known, could now be sold to farmers outside the restricted areas. But they could not be slaughtered until all the farms in North Wales had been declared ‘clean’. The blues were to be shorn and marked with a 5in stripe on their snouts and foreheads. The ministry provided paint: swimming pool blue, a job lot left over, according to wags, from the private swimming pools of top civil servants in the Home Counties.

Inevitably the blues, which struck an odd, punkish note as they were driven to the auction pens, commanded a poor price, sometimes as low as £1 a head. The lowland farmers who bought them were taking a gamble. If controls were lifted quickly they could make a huge profit. If restrictions persisted, the maintenance of their blues throughout the winter might damage their farms and bank balances irrevocably. For the restricted farmers there was compensation. But any such schemes which resulted from what the Secretary of State for Wales, Nicholas Edwards, describes as these ‘unprecedented problems’, would ‘inevitably…involve a measure of rough justice’.

By early September, despite the minister’s evident pragmatism, there was widespread dissatisfaction. The farmers wanted the ‘averaging’ method of calculating market losses changed – it enriched farmers selling unfinished lambs at the expense of those whose early lambs had become overfat following slaughter restrictions. They also wanted compensation not only on the low prices that their lambs and breeding ewes were fetching in the market, but also on the ‘consequential losses’, the costs of holding unfinished lambs on the farm.

‘The farmers might have been chatting like nuclear scientists about becquerels and half-lives,’ says John Hooson. ‘They might have cheered to the rafters any farmer who made an emotional speech about the dangers of radiation for our children’s children. But it was fear of going bust, of losing out on compensation, and not caesium 137 that kept our passions flaming.’

And so it was that, on the evening of September 3, 300 or so irate farmers gathered outside the Eagles Hotel at Llanwrst to ‘welcome’ Martin Bevan, an assistant secretary in the Welsh office. John Hooson, who was among the official delegates inside the hotel, told Martin Bevan, ‘This is a moderate meeting. If things don’t improve in the next few days, it will not be so moderate. Feelings are running very high.’ Outside, moderation was giving way to exasperation.

‘If our problems had occurred for wealthy Englishmen in Surrey they would have been sorted out in a fortnight,’ says Bernard Malethan. ‘But this isn’t Surrey. This is some native backwater. We’d co-operated with the restrictions, we’d talked and been polite and got nowhere. We’d been ignored. Because the rain had fallen on the most Welsh area of Wales, our battle had been fought in Welsh. It had dominated the Welsh media. But the English papers weren’t interested. The public beyond Wales didn’t know what was going on. Diplomacy had failed. I thought, those who shout loudest get the attention. And so I shouted, "Let’s go in!"’

The farmers stormed into the hotel ballroom where the meeting was being held. Chairs were banged on tables. Coins were thrown. Welsh oaths were aired. And Martin Bevan, legs ‘visibly quivering at the knees’, was ‘escorted’ to the telephone to cries of, ‘We want the organ grinder, not the bloody monkey.’ ‘Mr Bevan handled himself perfectly,’ says Bernard Malethan, ‘but he could see we wouldn’t let our hostage go until he had extracted a promise from Nicholas Edwards to meet the farmers.’

Already the mythology of the Welsh hills is that the rapid introduction of new schemes for market losses and ‘direct additional expenses’ was directly due to ‘the mob at Llanwrst’. ‘We’re more politically alive than the hill farmers in Cumbria, Exmoor and the Pennines,’ comments John Hooson drily. ‘We are noisy and we are stubborn – there is no doubt about that.’


The ‘organ grinder’, as minister Nicholas Edwards had been called, was sympathetic to the ‘noises’ coming out of Snowdonia. He himself lives in a valley in Pembrokeshire with Welsh hill farmers as neighbours. But the events of Chernobyl were unprecedented. ‘It wasn’t long before we realised that, certainly on the high ground, we had a problem that would run on at least till the end of the year,’ he says. ‘Our over-riding considerations were to prevent the meat entering the markets and the food chain and to maintain customer confidence in the reputation of the product.’

‘When the restrictions were first imposed, I thought it would be the finish of the sheep industry in Wales for 10 years at least,’ says Richard Jones, a livestock auctioneer. The early indications were that the consumers would follow the Greek model, where the market totally collapsed (and has yet to recover). The price of fat lambs dropped by up to a quarter as major customers cancelled orders. Rumours abounded: the man in Dolgellau who demanded a refund for his leg of lamb; the butcher in Shrewsbury who boasted, ‘No Welsh lamb here!’ Farmers gathered at the Royal Hotel in Caernarfon to dine on ‘lamb, the flavour of Wales’ for the television cameras. ‘If this doesn’t work,’ said one, ‘our sheep will be good for only fish fingers and pork pies.’ But it soon became clear that their fears were largely unfounded. ‘The market impact was unexpectedly small,’ says Nicholas Edwards. By late summer the distinctive dragon flag of Welsh lamb was once again flying in British shops.


Seven May lambs managed to escape the flock – and the foxes – on Trebor Roberts’s hill, the Aran Fawddwi, which rises just short of 3000ft to the west of Dolgellau. It was not until late November that he finally brought them down to the pasture land which surrounds Esgair Gawr, the farmhouse in which his wife, Annwen, was born and which Trebor had tenanted and then owned for over 20 years. On December 5, sporting the last of the government’s blue paint on their foreheads, they were put to auction at the livestock market in Dolgellau.

In a normal year – and with lambs of this quality and weight – he would have expected to have made, say, £26 for each animal. In the end, despite the auctioneer’s exhortations (’You’ve got a bonus here – a dab of blue paint’), the seven sheep are knocked down to £14 a head. ‘Not bad, considering,’ says Trebor Roberts as he passes 50p ‘luck money’ to the buyer, Wellan Beamond from Newtown in mid-Wales. The coin adds a sentimental touch to the transaction – but Trebor Roberts is a sentimental man when it comes to sheep. He presents them as wise, prescient and home-loving. ‘That’s something to spit on,’ he comments, though Mr Beamond has hopes for a greater profit than 50p. It’s a gamble – but he already has 300 blues. In April they could make him £30 a head.

For Trebor Roberts the departure of his last seven lambs marks the end of his most worrying year: his land ‘contaminated’, his sheep ‘dirty’, their lambs ‘blighted’.

‘We live poor and we die rich in hill farming,’ he says. ‘All my spare cash is tied up in stock and land. But I’m not only worried about money and sheep. I’m worried about the people of Wales. That dark cloud has been hanging over our heads, too. I know of a farmer in the Bala area. They went to monitor his sheep with a Geiger counter and monitored him first in order to discover the background radiation. And he was higher than the sheep. Now that’s a worry.’ The canteen at the market in Dolgellau is full of such stories. The belief most vehemently held is that the major cause for the contamination is not only Chernobyl but also the ageing Magnox nuclear power station which has operated since 1965 on Trawsfynydd Lake near Ffestiniog.

Three of four times a week a goods train crosses the farm at Teilau Bach near Blaenau. The farmer and his mother, Heddwyn and Olwyn Hughes, remember ‘happier, safer days’ when GWR steam locomotives carried holiday-makers to Bala. Then there was a halt on their land where locals could board the train for shopping expeditions or trips to school. Now the only traffic comes from the nuclear power station. The cargo of drums and 50-ton flasks contains industrial trash and spent fuel contaminated with radioactivity.

For Heddwyn Hughes the railway is ‘a death line’, threatening his health, his income, his peace of mind. Every train has come to represent a cocktail of worries and pressures. Not only Chernobyl, but the overdraft, the weather, the falling value of land. ‘The CEGB says that the power station is perfectly safe,’ he says. ‘But people feel that there is contamination from Trawsfynydd. It’s like a car. The filth has to go somewhere. Why do we need it when all around we have so much power in the wind and the water? We have lived off these mountains for generations and now, thanks to Chernobyl and Trawsfynydd, our land has become dirty.’

Heddwyn Hughes is not alone. Throughout the valleys and hill farms of Snowdonia there is an emotive chorus of cynicism and mistrust about the local nuclear power station. Farmers and their wives point towards the square and functional building at Trawsfynydd, at the grey steam which rises from it, at the humming pylons. Apart from the slate quarries at Llechwedd, it is the ugliest site in Snowdonia.

‘Most of the farmers would like Trawsfynydd to close right now,’ says Myfanwy Evans. She and her husband, John, farm 700 acres up-valley from Trebor Roberts. Her sister dies in 1964 from leukaemia and she wonders whether their land was ‘contaminated long before Chernobyl’. ‘I would be a strange mother,’ she says, ‘if sometimes, tucking my children up in bed, I didn’t wonder whether Trawsfynydd is as safe as they claim.’

There are wild rumours of dangerously irradiated sulphur emissions from the station’s smoke stack, of a corridor of unexplained cancers along the railway, of a major leak into Trawsfynydd Lake, even of offices in concrete bunkers and evacuation villas in Spain for Trawsfynydd top brass. None can be substantiated. But local ‘alarmists’, as they are described by station manager Donald Doo, have ‘found courage in Chernobyl’ and are confusing the debate with misleading information.

Yet research from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food showed abnormal levels of caesium in Trawsfynydd waters (which are used to cool the reactors) before Chernobyl. Their Aquatic Environment Monitoring Report of 1985 recorded caesium levels in Trawsfynydd lake mud of 7800 becquerels per kilogram and in lake shore peat of 1500bqs/kg (compared with normal background radiation of less than 300bqs/kg). Stewart Boyle, national energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, comments: ‘There is a fish farm in the lake, not very far from the power station’s discharge pipe. How contaminated are the trout? The levels of radioactivity may, from Trawsfynydd, represent a statistically low risk for the people of North Wales. But how critical will it be, say, for a fisherman who is on that lake regularly and eats some of that fish?’

‘I have never hesitated to eat trout from the lake,’ counters Mike Williams, the station health physicist. ‘In order to get any radiation effect from the power station you’d have to stand still in one spot, eating fish, for a year. But nobody does that, and nobody consumes mud. So the effects are infinitesimally small.’ So certain is he of the comparatively low levels of contamination that he ate more Welsh lamb after Chernobyl, not less. The falling price allowed him to stock his freezer. ‘Let’s keep this in proportion,’ he says. ‘Brazil nuts have 300bqs/kg in them naturally – nothing to do with nuclear power, nothing to do with Chernobyl. And I can bring you a piece of stone from Cornwall that will have a natural radiation level far higher than anything we have round here.’ (Recent reports have shown 20,000 households in the West Country to be vulnerable to the seepage of alarmingly high levels of the naturally-occurring radioactive gas radon, which is believed to increase susceptibility to respiratory cancers.)

One thing is certain, the Chernobyl accident – together with the likelihood that the plant will be replaced by a new pressurised water reactor after 1995 – has required the incumbents at Trawsfynydd to make a more open and informative stand within the community. A ‘layman’s guide to emergency procedures’ is to be distributed in Snowdonia. ‘In the inconceivable event that an emergency does occur, we want Mrs Owen or Mrs Jones to know at what stage to pack the children in the car and set off,’ says Donald Doo. ‘Yet there is no need for worry.’ Any contamination is ‘negligible’, ‘insignificant’, with ‘nil effects on the environment’.

He lists the employment record of Trawsfynydd – 600 jobs in an area where 19 per cent of the population are out of work, the railway line kept open by the power station, the local roads built at CEGB expense. ‘The Welshman complains that his sons and daughters leave the valleys. We offer jobs and we keep their children here. They should look on us not with fear but with fondness.’ His tone of voice suggests it is a cruel and undeserved irony that an environment and a lifestyle so disrupted by events at a nuclear power station 1400 miles away should have, on its doorstep, a nuclear plant of its own, an easy scapegoat for all the woes and resentments of the farmer. ‘I’ve even been blamed for the failings of the lamb compensation schemes,’ he says. ‘That’s the confusion that Chernobyl has caused.’


And when will it end? At the end of January this year 100,000 sheep in 315 holdings in upland Gwynedd were still under ‘farm arrest’ (compared with the original 2 million sheep and 5100 holdings). Apricot paint had replaced swimming pool blue for those sheep which had failed a live monitoring test. The government’s ‘Cherno-bill’ for losses under the various compensation schemes had exceeded £2.1 million.

The hauliers, the slaughtermen, the livestock auctioneers, the farmers who had slipped through the net of schemes were counting the cost of an expensive and depressing year. ‘It has been a disaster,’ says Richard Jones, the auctioneer whose company lost in excess of £3000 in three months because of low commission on Chernobyl specials. ‘What the government should have done was slaughter all the blues and send them off. To Russia. With love.’

The Welsh hill farmers are now preparing for this year’s lambs with a sense of foreboding. ‘The idea that the caesium would simply pass through the sheep and just get washed away has proved not to be correct,’ says Professor John Owen, of University College, Bangor. ‘There has been some reabsorption of caesium from the soil by vegetation.’ His Department of Agriculture placed ‘clean sheep’ on the hills above Bangor during October. After four weeks of grazing they registered caesium levels in excess of 3000bqs/kg.

‘Only a fool would be blasé about what might happen in the next few months,’ he says. ‘There is likely to be some recontamination of sheep on the mountain and, possibly, a reimposition of restrictions during the summer.’ And then what colour will we paint our sheep? Ask our farmers. Red for danger. Black for death. The more imaginative among them – fuelled by press pictures of genetically deformed post-Chernobyl rabbits in Finland and the virtual breeding failure of migratory swans from eastern Europe – have steeled themselves against the possibility of malformed lambs. Ministry scientists have given repeated assurances that (to quote Dr John Curtis) ‘there can be no genetic side effect as a result of Chernobyl fallout’. But the fears have proven to be as enduring and resistant as the caesium itself. What is the half-life of a rumour in an environment where the unthinkable has already occurred?

‘Lambing can be cold and hard work,’ says Myfanwy Evans, ‘but it can be a pleasure, too, when everything is going well. We call it the local Spring Handicap Chase. You just gallop along, 24 hours a day, and get the lambs born. But I certainly don’t want to be there alone at two or three in the morning and pulling out a deformed lamb.’

‘There is no safe level of increase in radiation,’ warns Professor Owen. ‘All the evidence suggests that genetic damage from radiation increases linearly and does not rely on passing a certain arbitrary threshold such as 1000bqs/kg. Any increase will cause extra deaths or genetic defects.’ Experts have calculated that ‘some tens’ of people in Britain will die within a few decades of Chernobyl radiation. Professor Owen is reluctant to be too specific about human damage, but he is certain that, following the rains of May, ‘some local mothers have good cause to believe that their families did eat material above levels that would normally be allowed’.

With sheep he is less circumspect. ‘You would be looking for malformation in lambs,’ he says. ‘Aborted lambs. An increase in the abnormalities that occur already – headless lambs, legless lambs, various deformations of the jaw. Embryos might simply fail to develop. Or there might be a slight mutation which does not show up until the second or third generation. It is possible that it might be several years before the worst effects of Chernobyl will present themselves.’


Trebor Roberts still walks his hill and inspects his livestock with the calm and contentment of a man at peace with the landscape. His son, Emlyn, who is at agricultural college in Aberystwyth, will inherit the farm and, no doubt, his father’s ornate ramhorn and hazel crook. ‘Personally I feel that my task is to leave theland in a better state than I found it,’ he says. ‘Can I claim to have done that, after Chernobyl?’ He translates the words of a Welsh hymn into English: ‘Our fathers are buried here. And our children will follow us.’ In the circumstances it is a sentiment of such ironic power that Trebor Roberts is uncertain whether his words sound a note of warning or of triumph over adversity.

© Jim Crace 1987 

2. The knotweed menace

Birmingham 13, October 1992

In this article, Crace, in correspondent mode for a local magazine, documents another aspect of the changing landscape. Japanese knotweed, ruefully referred to by many gardeners as ‘the plant that ate the west’, continues its depredations to the present day. The article was signed ‘J.C.’.

Moseley residents are fortunate in having a wide choice and variety of park and riverside walks within easy reach. None of them, though, is exempt from the invasive damage of non-native plants and trees.

Rangers at Cannon Hill have recently completed the felling of the huge - and non-native - sycamores in the Seven Springs woodland (behind Elizabeth Road). Their dense canopies and their ubiquitous seedlings had virtually eradicated most of the smaller species which normally proliferate in the undergrowth of British woodlands. Now the rangers are facing a set of more complicated problems.

The Himalayan balsam has already shouldered out much of its bankside competition on the River rea from the St John’s Road bridge in Cannon Hill Park as far as Fordhouse Lane in Stirchley. At least the balsam’s large pink flowers are abundant and attractive in mid-summer - and it is shallow rooting, limited to the riverside and relatively easy to control.

Not so the Japanese knotweed, which is threatening to penetrate and damage many of the open spaces around Moseley. Imagine a plant with the tenacity of ground elder, the virility of bindweed, the cussedness of couch grass and the physical height and stamina of bamboo and you have some idea of Japanese knotweed and the threat it poses.

The plant was introduced in the last century by estate gardeners as an exotic polygonum suitable for shaded or infertile patches. The purple-to-red stems are attractive in spring and autumn, and there are loops of creamy flowers from July to October. Attractive, but profligate too, with foliage which excludes all undergrowth and deep roots which choke almost everything but large trees. The Japanese knotweed can not only reproduce from seed but also from root growth. It can even regenerate from a scrap of stem or foliage, and with such proficiency that half an inch trapped in the tread of a walking shoe and shed elsewhere can establish itself as a nine-foot-high shrub within a year.

The knotweed – or Japanese bamboo, as it is also known – is already flourishing throughout the formal gardens of Cannon Hill. The largest patch exists in what was varied undergrowth between the windmill and the Rea. This area was cleared by strimmer in July but each decapitated plant had reappeared within the month. It virtually controls the island in the middle of the wildfowl breeding pond. And there are well-established patches at the back of MAC, in the daffodil glade beyond the poppy meadow, at the edges of allotments on the Holders Lane site, and – most recently – in the newly planted forest sections of Seven Springs. The Cole Valley, too, is risking its variety to the knotweed, which is growing, in isolated clumps, from the Brickworks in Sparkhill to the Scriber’s Lane ford in Yardley Wood. There are also, sadly, new infestations in the unique habitat of the Moseley Bog, notably near both entrance slopes from Wake Green Playing Fields.

Even Moseley Private Park, for all its exclusivity, has not escaped the knotweed. It is well-established on the dell side of the lake and at the Salisbury Road entrance. Several homes in Salisbury Road already have small outbreaks in their gardens.

It is easy to remove surface plants by snapping off the stems or by using strong foliage killers such as Tumbleweed. But it is not possible to dig out the roots. They are too deep and too determined. No-one has yet devised a method of controlling the Japanese knotweed. In the meantime – and too late for Moseley – it has been declared a banned species, illegal to plant, sell or propagate.

© Jim Crace 1992


3. Tide and prejudice

Condé Nast Traveller (1999)

This engaging article, written to coincide with the publication of Being Dead, combines reminiscences of the desert with some superb evocations of coastal landscapes. Useful background for those interested in Crace’s life.

A favorite family photograph: it is June 1988 at the Balsall Heath Carnival in landlocked Birmingham. My daughter, Lauren, then about two years old, is perched on my arm, clutching the end of the camera cable to ‘self-expose’ the portrait. I am standing on a Moroccan woven rug. Behind us, painted on the backdrop, is a beach with crabs, a childish undulating sea, two yachts, and a rudimentary steamship. Above our heads, there is a flapping streamer with the words ‘BIRMINGHAM-BY-THE-SEA’ painted on the canvas sky. I am grinning foolishly, as well I might, at such a tempting, far-fetched fantasy. Birnam Wood will come to Dunsinane before there is a beach in Balsall Heath.

The grandest and most thrilling cities – Rio, Sydney, San Francisco – are dignified and exhilarated by seafronts, or tide-washed estuaries, or at least, like London and Paris, by a river big enough for docks and ocean-going boats. It seems almost aberrant, a snub to Nature, when the City and the Water are far apart. Yet in Birmingham, all we have to compete with the Tiber and the Danube and the Thames is a knee-deep, concrete culvert called the River Rea. And the only stretch of city-centre water is the motionless canal basin at gas Street. The nearest sea is two hours down the M5 motorway at Weston-super-Mare – unless you're unlucky with the tide, in which case it’s Weston-super-Mud. The closest proper coast is in west Wales, beyond the hills. There's not a city in the length of Britain that is less salty than my own.

There was a time when such a deprivation would not have mattered to me much. My love – and need – of coasts has come with middle age. When I was younger and more adventurous I did not find myself fidgeting like some brine junkie if two months passed without the tranquillising fix of spray and shore. Indeed, for more than two years in the 1960s, when I was a volunteer in the Sudan and teaching in Botswana, on the edge of the Kalahari, I didn’t glimpse an ocean even once, and didn’t miss it for an instant. I was in my early twenties, and wanting landscapes that were dislocating, challenging and hard. I was a lover first of deserts, then of hills.

But even in the Kalahari I could not entirely escape the softer, bookish romance of the coast. Some witless academic examiner in Britain, either not caring or not knowing that Botswana was a nation with hardly any standing water or rainfall, 600 miles from the coast, had chosen The Pearl by John Steinbeck as a GCE set text. My pupils, none of whom had ever seen the sea and for whom the ocean was as relevant and reachable as outer space, had to grapple with the oyster and the shark, the reef, the snorkel and the surf, and listen to me rhapsodising all the wonders of the shore. I’ll not forget their disbelieving, shaking heads when I described a giant clam, or their attempts at drawing octopuses.

An equally witless academic had been at work when I was living in the Sudan, 500 miles form the Red Sea coast, in the Saharan suburbs across the Blue Nile from Khartoum. Their set-book that year was J Meade Falkner's Moonfleet. I taught them definitions they would never need – a smuggler’s cove, a sea-breached keg of Navy rum, a barnacle, a storm-tossed bank of bladderwrack, a running tide – all words that now are potent enough to make me daydream of Cornwall and high cliffs, the bony flight of fulmars, the safe, salty odours of a beach. But this was 1969 and I was only 23; I wanted all my journeys to be risks.

Each weekend I used to take off on my 98cc Yamaha or in a borrowed Mini Moke (both surprisingly mobile in deep sand) and drive into the Bayudha Desert. Here, I thought, was everything that sea-tossed England lacked: the all-embracing heat; the defiant landscape with its few dry plants clinging madly to the slipping, never-ending scrub; and a silence so unashamed and vivid that just to be there was to feel heroic and exposed.

One day, carelessly turning pieces of stone below the truncated pyramids at Meroe, I was stung at the base of my little finger by a baby scorpion. I had to ride back to Khartoum with one working hand and the other throbbing and swelling with hardly bearable pain. Just south of El Geili, at dusk, an eagle owl attracted by the headlamps on my Yamaha came out of nowhere, swooping for the tasty titbit of my eyes. I ducked in time. Its talons took three ruts of skin and hair out of my scalp. I wiped the blood across my forehead with my one good hand. I'd never felt so hunted or so glad to be alive. I thought I’d love the desert till I died.

It was not until almost 30 years later, when I was exploring Judea, that I could finally admit that my youthful love affair with deserts – and, indeed, with what had become my second passion, the high landscapes of Europe – had ended. I had at last fixed my heart elsewhere.

Izzat abu Rabia, my Bedouin guide, and I had been walking in the pie-crust hills behind Qumran when he received an urgent summons to Gaza on his mobile phone. Within an hour we were in his Jeep and heading for the nearest surfaced road. I was not pleased. Plucked from some of the most romantic and evocative desert scenery in the world I’d have to spend – to waste – the day in Tel Aviv.

I went down to the Tayelet Promenade and walked a little grumpily along the manicured and unremitting sand of the Bograshov Beach. There are few beaches on the Mediterranean less engaging than this. Indeed, there are few seas, for me at least, as uninspiring. The Med is far too meek; all its salt-soaked history, all the wine-dark colours of its bays, all its cradling of civilisation, can never compensate for such a short and feeble tide. What few waves there were in Tel Aviv that day were emasculated by the defensive breakwaters offshore; any coastal magic was defiled by traffic noise and blocks of bland hotels.

But nothing can repress or silence a sea entirely, even one as docile as the Med, and nothing can reduce the shimmer and the splendour of a sky and ocean as, far out on the horizon, they attempt to reconcile their battling greens and blues. High in the desert hills of Judea I’d been an awe-struck visitor, as ill at ease as a Botswanan on a beach. Down by the sea I was at home again amongst meanings and definitions that I’d understood since my first paddle, two years old, at Walton on the Naze. This was the reassuring universe of Moonfleet and The Pearl.

New-Age beach-huggers of my acquaintance regard a love of coastlines as instinctive and primordial. One can’t evade the bio-sentimental links, they say, between the music of a lapping shore and, first, the rhythmic pulsing of your mother's womb and, then, the ancient echoes of our primeval selves dragging our damp, evolving bodies from the ocean to the land. But no; sitting on the beach that afternoon in Tel Aviv with nothing to achieve except to see the sun go down, I recognised that for me the pleasures of the shore were less nebulous. I simply liked the wildly ruminative and mantric entertainment of the waves.

That morning, when I’d been sitting on the odourless ridges of Judea, overlooking the blue peaks of Moab, it had seemed that nothing, other than the weather and the light, could change, would change, as long as I stayed put, even for a century; the continuity was its appeal. But on the beach at Tel Aviv, and especially on oceanic coasts where the tides are deep and restless, an hour is enough for everything to change. The waters dance before your eyes, retreating and advancing to directions from the weather and the moon. What once was shallow water is now sand. What once was deep unbroken sea has sunk a foot or two to bare its rocks and weed. The tide has flooded in where there were pools and picnic spots. And then the waves retreat again to lace the beach with stranded lines of kelp, concealing stones or shells or crabs. The coast is always on the move. Impermanence is its appeal.

Nowadays, I am obsessed with being on the coast. Not out at sea; I have no appetite for boats, nor for the grandeurs or dramas of the stormy world offshore. What I like best are deeply tidal coasts in places where the light is thin and sharp, and where there is always the danger of a chilling wind and slate-grey seas. The tropics will not do, though I have spent exciting times in Mauritius, for example, and in Lombok, both of which have seashores out of paradise. But the beaches there are too hard lit. I much prefer the classic coasts of North America: scenic Highways One and One-O-One, the seashore-hugging roads that run north from California and Oregon through stands of cypresses and redwoods to Ocean City in Washington State. Or the ribbon of outer banks and barrier islands that stretch southwards out of Maine and finish at the Florida Keys. What better way to pass a week than ferry-hopping on the ever-restless Carolinas coast – from Roanoke Island to Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island – knowing that these thin shreds of sand dunes which stand between the Atlantic and Albermarle and Pamlico Sounds will have been moved and rearranged by wind and waves the next time that you visit them. Dunes migrate; they spread themselves inland. The sea erodes. Gales rip the wooden houses down and fell the trees.

But the single seascape that has become my second home (and would become my first if my liking for Birmingham were any weaker) is only 30 miles from Britain. The Scilly Isles, off Land’s End, an archipelago of five inhabited and more than 130 uninhabited islands, have everything the Med does not. No traffic-blaring, mad Corniche; no overcrowded beaches, swarming with tourists and their share-staking towels; no high, hard light; no uninspiring and feeble tide. In Scilly, the inter-tidal zones between the islands can peel back for up to a mile. A thousand years ago, these tidal flats were fields. The Iron Age ‘hedges’ and cottage hearths can still be found, barnacled and draped in kelp. At one time, the inhabited islands, apart from St Agnes, were all joined. But the sea’s a shape-shifter; it has risen. And it is rising still, 10 inches every century. The coast is closing in.

So there is hope for Birmingham. I have a fantasy. I’ve seen the ‘worst-case’ Global Warming maps. A small rise in temperature would melt the ice caps and bring the ocean flooding in across East Anglia and Lincolnshire, breaching the Northampton Uplands to put the Rotunda on the clifftops overlooking Digbeth Beach. My city would benefit at last from the one frontier that developers cannot spoil or compromise. We’d have the softening touch of sea frets, the timpani of marinas, docks and ships; we’d have reef and surf. Spaghetti Junction would be where it has always seemed to belong – up to its knees in waves. Spaghetti Pier. The Midland Corniche. BIRMINGHAM-BY-THE-SEA. Hasten the day!

© Jim Crace 1999


4.   Waiting for a Miracle

Sunday Times Magazine, 22 Jan 2006

This report from Cambodia was commissioned by the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières and published in slightly edited form in The Sunday Times Magazine as part of a series. The magazine funded the travel; the writers in this series, which have included Martin Amis, DBC Pierre, Tracy Chevalier, and Hari Kunzru, have donated their fees to MSF.

The volunteer farmers who bare their skin throughout the night and offer their blood to the mosquitoes of Pailin are taking grave risks for a good reason. Armed with a flashlight, some cotton wool and a test tube each and with their trouser legs rolled up, it is their low-tech duty to wait until an insect, attracted mostly by the carbon dioxide in perspiration or breath, alights on their skin to feed, and then to capture it for the laboratories of Phnom Penh where its disease-bearing parasite levels can be assessed.  In this remotest district of Cambodia, tight up against the Thai border on the northern slopes of the Cardamom mountains where the Khmer Rouge fought their final battles and where some of their cadres are now senior figures in the administration, the tropical mosquitoes are amongst the world’s most deadly. A single unlucky bite and any one of these eight human baits, working in four-hour shifts, could be infected with Japanese encephalitis of which [in September 2005] there is currently an epidemic. In the past six months almost a thousand south-east Asians have died from it and many thousands more are facing paralysis or brain damage. Or these volunteers could become the bone-aching, haemorrhaging victims of dengue which is at its most virulent during this season of monsoons and which, though not normally lethal except for children and the very old, is incurable. According to Richard Veerman, my Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) host and its Head of Mission in Cambodia, who has himself only just recovered from the  fever, “You can do nothing about it but sit out the pain and hope not to die.”


But it is neither dengue nor encephalitis that should worry me most, when I sit down on the boggy ground with my back against the hemp hedge in the tiny, rain-soaked village of Pang Rolim to join the volunteers and bare my own leg to the mosquitoes. Nor is it the deadly Russell’s vipers or the cobras that are common in the soy-bean fields just yards behind us. Nor is it even the undetected and undetonated landmines which, according to a recent UNICEF report, make these farmlands “one of the most dangerous places in the world.”  What should have kept our legs covered is the knowledge that the anopheles mosquitoes of Pailin or, more specifically, the single cell plasmodium falciparum malaria parasites which live in them and us, were the first in the world to develop (through over-prescribing and  incomplete dosing) a resistance to chloroquine. This is the drug  which for decades has been humankind’s main defence against malaria. I have suffered from malaria before, in The Sudan, and I survived with little more than a debilitating fever, but that was the less deadly p.vivax strain which has yet to develop resistance to drugs.


Yet my fellow volunteers and I are not being foolhardy. We can be relatively confident  that whatever the parasite-load of the vectors filling their abdomens with our blood, we are unlikely to contribute to the worldwide toll of 2.7 million malaria deaths each year (out of the at least 350 million -almost exclusively poor- people who, according to a UN report of May 2005, sicken with the disease.) In this fortunate village at least, there is a new and readily available treatment for p.falciparum, a cocktail based on artemisinin, an extract from sweet wormwood. But it has to be administered swiftly. All the locals understand from the too recent and bitter experience of neighbours that to contract this strain of malaria in Pailin and leave it to its own devices, is to invite a rapid and painful death. After a week or more of gestation, we could expect fever, muscle pains, and headaches, explains Bart Janssens, MSF’s medical co-ordinator. For any victims beyond the reach of artemisinin, however, diarrhoea, nausea, anaemia might develop. And then, finally, in a third to a half of all cases, there would be “severe complications”, including brain damage, multiple organ failure and coma. “You could be dead in ten days,” he warns. “It happens. And it is a horrible way to die.” 


Our job that night, under the cheerful scrutiny of entomologist,  Dr.Tho Sochantha, from the Centre for Malariology, is to help verify what the rapidly falling p.falciparum prevalence and death toll has been suggesting, that MSF’s volunteer-based, rapid treatment programme for malaria in these forest-edge villages, where heavy shade and high humidity offer the perfect conditions for breeding mosquitoes, is “breaking the pathways of transmission” between female insects, parasites and humans.


My own contribution to the insect survey is only modest. I seem at first to be more attractive to ants than mosquitoes. But finally, in the pitch darkness and to the midnight plainting of cicadas, I learn to recognise the weightless, fussy probing of anopheles on my shins and I begin to fill a test tube with my captives. At the end of my shift, Dr Sochantha holds my tally up to his magnifier and, much to the delight of a crowd which has abandoned a blaring, battery-powered television set to watch a European make a meal of himself, declares my specimens to be “from a vector that normally prefers to feed on cows.” He would be happy to offer me a trapper’s job at any time, though.  “You are a good hunter,” he says. “Their abdomens are not bloated. You have captured them before they could feed.”  What I do not mention is that, though my leg has not been pierced, the back of my neck is already itchy and lumpy from a dozen uninterrupted bites.




Over the next few days, in the pretty, straw-roofed, stilt villages of Treng Leu and Phnom Reang (or Tree Mountain), accessible to only the toughest off-road vehicles with the most reckless of drivers, the MSF mobile malaria team and its dignified and gentle Thai co-ordinator, Raden Srihawong, meet up with some of their 40 trained community volunteers to “mass screen” every available inhabitant for malaria. Their simple purpose is “to reduce malaria morbidity by finding more patients.” The villagers, in their mixture of traditional blouses and fake Nike or Puma t-shirts and an eclectic array of hats, are queuing in the mud at the temporary canvas and bamboo tents that MSF has erected for its medical inspection. They are the strongest-looking buildings in the village. There is a lot of barking from the distinctively curly-tailed dogs and some crying from the children. Both seem alarmed by the presence of so many strangers and so much activity. But all the adults are delighted -and a little amazed- to have so much medical attention offered for free and on their home patch. These are some of the poorest communities in Asia. Not one has a school for its children. Not one has any electricity or sanitation. Not one has water for washing or cooking, other than that provided by the heavens. At this time of the year, the heavens have provided more than generously. A week of monsoons has turned the countryside into one great puddle. No-one can go anywhere if they are not prepared to wade. But for most of the year, the land is dry and baked and the living is hard.  “There are three harvests a year in Thailand,” observes Bart Janssens. “But in Cambodia there is only one,  and in Pailin there is probably only a half. This is a land of grave inequalities. Most of these farmers can produce enough food for six months, but then they have to catch insects and make soup from wild plants.”


They have, too, to deal with the presence of unexploded ordinance. Amputees are a common sight, and the red skull-and-crossbones signs warning “DANGER! MINES!!” can be encountered every twenty yards, even on the narrowest of pathways. It is said that Pailin will not be entirely cleared for a further eighty years. Chea Doeurn, whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Chek Dany, is the paid malaria “volunteer” in the virtually unreachable village of Bor Thmei, has found many mines in his soy-bean fields. Three of their neighbours have died. Ten have lost limbs.   Their home is positioned between “Confirmed Minefields” and “Residual Minefields” in the most mined-area in the world and is at the end of  Route Ten where, as late as 1999 and eight years after the official ceasefire, the final skirmishes were exchanged between Government troops and the last few Khmer Rouge insurgents. It is reached on foot by a newly-cleared corridor that is barely a yard wide in places. Most of his neighbours are “retired” Khmer Rouge soldiers and may well have planted many of the mines themselves. But they have no idea where exactly. The landscape has changed so much. The district of Pailin, like much of Cambodia, was almost entirely forested ten years ago (as, let’s not forget, was much of my home patch of Warwickshire, though not so recently). Now Pailin is mostly fields except on high ground where a few bamboo thickets and straggling copses persevere. The hardwoods, especially the huge and intricate tropical rosewoods have been felled and exported, mostly illegally. The speedy, thoughtless destruction of these forests (together with gem and petrol smuggling, bribery and unofficial taxes) has made government, police and army officials in Pailin, many of whom were once the henchmen of  Pol Pot’s Brother Number Three, Ieng Sary, immensely rich.  Even the most modest of cafes or bars in town is furnished with thick, one-piece timber tables that would be worth a fortune in Europe. The villagers have not benefited though from the region’s sanctioned lawlessness. “Cambodia exports its wood and imports its toothpicks,” one of them comments dryly. All the farmers have to show for the rape of the landscape are semi-fertile fields, rotting trees stumps, and mines.


Chea Doeurn, who is one of the many new immigrants who have come to these remote and risky borders because there is no shortage of  smallholdings to squat and farm, recounts the story of a near neighbour who lost his right leg incrementally -ankle, knee, thigh- in three separate explosions. His daughter, Chek Dany, shudders to hear of it. “Malaria is not our most frightening problem,” she says, though she herself has suffered from the disease four times in the five years since her family arrived in Pailin, probably because as an outsider she has little immunity to it. On one occasion, she was so seriously ill that she reached what she calls “a staring coma”. Now, as MSF’s “village face”, she offers malaria advice, diagnosis and treatment to most of the 370 inhabitants within her district.  But she has yet to dare to visit some of her nearest neighbours at home because the ground between them is so chock-full of landmines. “I think a lot about the danger when I am working,” says Chea Doeurn,  sitting on the decking of his house-cum-shop where he sells vegetables and glasses of home-brewed rice spirit which -as I can verify- must have caused some “staring comas” of its own, “but I have to farm the fields because I am a poor man. I am more frightened of hunger than I am of the mines.”


The good news is, however, that thanks to the work of MSF and their village volunteers at least the killer form of malaria is retreating from their lives. The 2003 prevalence survey found 7.8% of these rural populations positive for p.falciparum (and showed that 5% of the countless millions of mosquitoes were carriers of the parasite).  That’s a lot of danger and a lot of deaths. In 2004 the “positive” figure was down to 3.7%. Already the 2005 surveys are indicating a heartening prevalence of  less than 1.4%. Certainly, in the two communities of the mass-screening, those few villagers reporting malaria-like symptoms on this occasion and judged symptomatic when examined physically -they have enlarged spleens, for example, or high temperatures- are few and far between. Most people are marked by ink pen on their arms with an ID number and a blue A for “Asymptomatic” (clear of disease). Of this overwhelming majority, only those pregnant women needing iron tablets, or children who require deworming, or anyone with a rash, an infection or an abrasion is sent forward to the ever patient Raden Srihawong for treatment.  But the few who are sporting the Red S of Symtomatic proceed to another set of blood tests and ParaChecks.  Among them is No.191, an eleven-year-old boy called Phan Mol who suffers, like too many of his contemporaries, from malnutrition. He weighs only twenty kilograms or a little over three stone. That’s less than a healthy five-year-old. He is stoical but a little fearful when Raden examines his tiny frame and hears from his mother about the vomiting and chills that have beset her son for the past three days. But Phan Mol, like most of those marked S, is lucky. He only has the less dangerous p.vivax.  Raden dispenses the chloroquine there and then. 


No. 67, Uong Virakk, is less fortunate, though. As the red PF(+) mark on his forearm indicates, he has p.falciparum and is very ill. He lies on his back under yet another battery-driven television set (this time showing episodes of The High Chaparral). He is exhausted, nauseous, shivering, and struggling to breathe. No.82, a three-year-old girl, is PF(+) also. So are Numbers 107 (a pregnant 22-year-old), 149 (a young farmer), and 26 (an elderly woman, recently widowed, who has come to the village to live with her daughter and has not been exposed to malaria before). Out of almost six hundred  villagers tested only these five -that’s less than one per cent- have been in any danger from fatal malaria. In three days time, after their courses of artemisinin, they will be cured.


Here, for once, is evidence of a medical success story – a killer disease which has had a huge socio-economic impact on poor communities, cheaply and simply contained by the uncomplicated expedient of “bringing diagnosis and treatment to where the problem is.” Indeed, I have cause to be grateful myself to MSF and its efficient strategies. Two weeks after my exposure to the mosquitoes of Pailin and back home in Birmingham, I begin to sweat and shiver. Every muscle in my body aches. I prick my fingertip and carry out the Paracheck that all the village volunteers offer to their symptomatic patients and is as simple to administer as a home pregnancy test. I show negative for p.falciparum.  It’s vivax again. Raden Srihawong has sent me home with all the treatments and I expect (correctly) to be well again within a few days.  



Sadly, the medical success story of Médecins Sans Frontières and plasmodium falciparum does not extend to other health issues in Pailin. Elsewhere in the district it is mostly a case of Frontières Sans Médecins.  This is a country ravaged by war and by one of the twentieth century’s most brutal regimes. Between 1970 and 1978, two million citizens -that’s one third of the population- were murdered. Cambodia has not recovered yet. Its public health provisions, non-existent under Pol Pot and scarcely any better during the ten years of the Vietnamese occupation, are still poor. The Government spends less than $3 a year on health care for each of its citizens. Infant mortality rates, according to the 1998 census, are almost one in ten. Life expectancy is only 57. Most Cambodians die from conditions that are simple and cheap to cure or contain. There are, as yet, few foreigners in Pailin district. There are certainly no tourists, except for those who come across the Thai border every night for the gambling and the “karaoke bars” (or brothels) . Any other outsiders that do plan on spending any time in what has been called Cambodia’s “badlands” and its “Wild West “, should not expect to go away entirely unscathed. Here it is not easy to stay well.


The US Department of Health advises travellers to Cambodia to protect themselves with seven vaccinations. It warns against almost thirty health hazards from avian influenza -via plague, polio, rabies and (still) SARS- to typhoid. It recommends that visitors to rural areas should always coat themselves in insect repellent and sleep under protective nets. The guidebooks advise travellers to avoid sickness by refusing salads, peeled fruits, meat products, and anything but bottled drinks. They should evade the endemic ticks, the chiggers and the many parasitic worms by never walking in water or in bare feet.  They are, of course, exhorted not to venture from a surfaced road into the land-mined countryside, “even for the call of nature; your limbs are more important than your modesty.” 


But any traveller who completes the exhausting, four hour drive from Battambang along the deeply rutted red-dirt road with its signs imploring No Hunting, No Felling, Use Condoms, into  Pailin district, will realise at once that those cautious (and expensive) lifestyles recommended by guidebooks are impossible and unsustainable even for tourists. For locals, illness is almost unavoidable, as is medical neglect, even if they are reckless enough to enter one of the dozen or so single storey buildings in the waste and weed-filled compound that is the disgrace of Pailin Hospital, a place of Crimean inadequacy. The Director is ex-Khmer Rouge and is not medically-trained. “That man learnt his surgery in the bush,” I am told by a Cambodian who lost several of his family to torture but is -as are the majority of his young compatriots- keen to “close the Book of Tyranny” and “bury the past.”  The Hospital Director, like many of his seventy or so medical colleagues (of whom, reportedly, only twenty show up at work each day), was given his job as a sinecure by powerful old comrades,  men  like the district’s current (and ex-KR) military commander, Brakk Sakhorn, who can be spotted at night at his table in The Bamboo Restaurant, a sinister satellite phone at his side, or like the Provincial Governor, Y Chhean, who learnt his administrative skills in the forests as a Pol Pot stalwart. 


Certainly, the Director does not seem much interested in the sick. He manages to tour the filthy and almost empty wards without addressing or even looking at any of his patients. He seems bored, disengaged, uninquisitive.  A used condom on the concrete floor goes unnoticed. So does a young woman in the last hours of her life. The one male nurse will not help her either, though only five of the twenty slatted beds in his ward are in use. She is a sex worker and she is in the final stages of AIDS. Her skin is erupting. She is spider thin. Only her eyes -disorientated, exhausted and terrified- are not reduced in size. The only care she gets is a pile of damp sawdust under her bed, to soak up her faeces and urine. She has been offered no medicines, though antiretroviral drugs - available in some areas of Cambodia- might have saved her life. No-one is feeding her or making her final days remotely comfortable. It is not until five volunteers from Family Health International arrive at the hospital that this once attractive young woman is afforded the dignity and the comfort of a change of clothes, a wash, and some food (which she cannot swallow). Her hair is brushed. Her nails are cut. These volunteers, most of whom are sex workers themselves and some of whom are HIV Positive, are keen to show their contempt for the paid staff, for their laziness, their cowardice and their heartlessness.




Mam Savry’s husband had the good sense to stay away from this local Pailin Hospital, despite his illness. He like many Cambodians had been frequently to prostitutes such as the dying woman and her volunteer carers. In 1996, he’d caught venereal disease and passed it on to Mam, his second wife, a small and spirited woman with a mouthful of gold teeth. They both paid for a private cure but, she says, “our marriage was already damaged because he had brought violations to the family.” Then, two years later, she says, “He began behaving strangely. He was feverish at my side in bed. It felt as if steam was coming off his body.” He was diagnosed as HIV Positive and so, when he was 43 and seriously ill, he deserted  Mam Savry to return to his birth village close to Pailin town where his family and his first wife still lived and where, at least, he would be offered more comfort than a pile of damp sawdust. He received no treatment and took no medicines, except those offered by the khruu khmer, traditional healers. It took him a year to die, a year of fevers and skin diseases, chest infections and unrelieved pain.


Mam Savry determined to make a new life for herself with relatives in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s richest, most modernised and  most fashionable city and the one most favoured by tourists. The ancient temples of Angkor are only a twenty-minute ride away by tuk-tuk taxi. That decision saved her life. She had feared that her husband might have passed on to her his HIV, but she had never found the courage to take a blood test. “I did everything I could to make myself happy,” she says, “but nothing could put an end to my fear.” Then she fell victim to a long series of infections and to intermittent diarrhoea. Both she and her relatives recognised the symptoms. Her weight fell from her usual 42 kilos to 29 kilos. “I was a skeleton,” she says, and her family, her neighbours and the community treated her as if she were a contagious embarrassment: “For example, my porridge was tipped into a plastic bag for me to eat with my fingers and not put on a dish to eat with a spoon like everyone else.”  But help was at hand. It was 2002 and Médecins Sans Frontières had just opened its Chronic Diseases Clinic in the grounds of the Siem Reap Provincial Hospital. “My friend told me there was a treatment which could cheat death and give me a long life and so I found my courage and I turned up at their door.”


Mam  Savry was one of MSF’s first HIV patients in Siem Reap to receive the antiretroviral drugs which so effectively fight opportunistic diseases, such as tuberculosis, venereal ulcers, pneumonia, fungal infections of the trachea, meningitis, and a host of piggy-back viruses. It is these and not the HIV status which transform the condition into the full-blown AIDS that had so rapidly killed her husband. If Mam Savry had fallen ill before 2002 in Siem Reap -where the HIV prevalence of more than 2% is currently the highest in Cambodia-  she too would have been left to die. Nowadays -after three years of  a therapy which since the introduction of generic drugs (these ones are produced in Mumbai, India) has cut the treatment costs from $10,000 a year to just $140-   she is “a little overweight”,  but “feeling strong” and “full of hope.” “Strangers are pleased to meet me,” she says. Indeed, it is hard to imagine as she bustles around the MSF clinic as a volunteer counsellor that Mam Savry could possibly be suffering from the same condition as the dying sex worker in Pailin.


The same is true of Sim Chorb, a 33-year-old rice farmer from Prey Thmey village, who has been HIV positive for 15 years, since one too many visits to a prostitute. More than a quarter of all  sex workers have the disease. Sim Chorb’s friend died without treatment but once Sim became sick with tuberculosis and diarrhoea, he was brave enough to  take a blood test. His  CD4 count (the immune defence lymphocyte most targeted by HIV) was as low as 30.  A count of around 1000 in normal for a healthy person. Now he swallows six tablets a day, taken from a batch supplied by MSF and kept in a tin on his bed, guarded by two cats. He cannot forget the disease in his body -and claims not to visit brothels nowadays- but he is fit and well. So, too, is Lim Sovaan, a 52-year-old grandmother who looks fifteen years younger. She lives in the outskirts of Seam Reap -or Thailand Defeated as it means in Khmer- where she makes a meagre living recycling tins and bottles. It is a twenty-minute wade through warm and  sewage-rich water to reach her  flooded hut. She once had a less-modest house but when her husband died of AIDS, she had to sell it to settle his medical debts. Her husband had turned to the local khruu khmer for help.  They gave him expensive herbs to boil. “We did not understand the illness then,” she says.  “Some people thought that AIDS was spread by mosquitoes. Other people said that coffee was a cure. I heard of a man who was already HIV positive, but he drank black coffee for a month and then was tested Negative.” When her own health deteriorated, however, she joined the more than 900 -out of 1430 Positive patients- who are currently being treated with antiretroviral drugs,  and being supported by home visits, health advice and dietary supplements. “This clinic is a place of hope,” says MSF’s project coordinator, Dr Sophie Duterme, as she walks along the avenue of white-barked eucalyptus trees towards the clean, fan-cooled ward under her control where most HIV patients are suffering from opportunistic diseases or the rare, severe side-effects to treatment, including toxic liver damage and neurological failures. “Even though we have patients with a desperate condition, this is not a place of desperation. There is a problem, though. Until last year, up to two thirds of our patients were coming from outside the province. Now we have been forced to limit the number of new patients to fifty a  month – and they must come from this province.”  So Pailin people are refused? “Yes, that is so. Regrettably.”




Siem Reap Provincial Hospital, with its single-storey blocks and its shaded open ground, is -despite the day-time screeching of its fruit bats- the most peaceful section in the busy centre of town, close to the Old Market quarter. But not for long. It has to move elsewhere. The developers have their eyes on it, as they have their eyes on almost every acre of land where they might throw up a cheap hotel, Florida-style. Cheap to build that is, and cheap to run. Staff wages -for those applicants who pass an HIV test- are low. But the room rates will be “international” and expressed in US dollars –now the town’s semi-official currency-  and not in the local riels which even beggars will refuse. The nearby temples of Angkor built so lovingly a millennium ago are occasioning a rushed and thoughtless epidemic of bed fever, not beds for the sick, of course, but for the target number of 15 million visitors a year. In 2004, there were just one million tourists for the  whole of Cambodia. Already the road out to the airport has become a Via Dollarosa, a dispiriting, vulgar strip where fly-in, fly-out trippers, mostly from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, are quarantined and anaesthetized against the real Cambodia. Those who do bother to wander in the Old Market quarter will discover not only some of the finest food in Asia and the usual national charm and courtesy, but also legions of amputees, many from Pailin district, tuk-tuk drivers unprepared to take No for an answer, gangs of waifs with their baby siblings as begging accessories, men with anything and everything to sell. All are seagulls to the crust. And all are so skilled at importuning, bullying and wheedling any visitor who does not simply walk away that in the space of an afternoon I had handed over $8, more than a Cambodian doctor would earn in a week. It seemed to me that I was targeted, because as a male, middle-aged European walking alone, I fitted the profile of the sex tourist, of which, on the evidence of the mixed-national, mixed-age, mixed-sized couples on the street, there are many. So, in a country where genuine massages were once part of the culture, I was summoned from the doors of parlours so blatantly “untraditional”, that even the words pedicure and reflexology were laden with a new, grubby meaning. I was offered “brides” by shopkeepers. And most alarmingly and within plain sight of a street hoarding which declared in English “ABUSE A CHILD IN OUR COUNTRY; GO TO PRISON IN YOURS” I was tagged by a suggestive nine-year-old girl who, when I would not let her take my hand, refused to go away until I offered her a dollar. “You too old anyway,” she said.


Siem Reap, then, is a town that’s being ruined by its closeness to some ruins. Too soon, it will be intolerable, a victim of the Revolution of Rising Expectations which seems to attach a drawback to every advantage it offers. Its new though selective wealth and modernity seem like an impediment to progress rather than evidence of it. Fortunes will be made, of course, by the already rich and powerful. But there is a maturing poverty of spirit in Siem Reap, and although the foreign visitor will be met with hopeful looks by almost everyone, the hope is only that the visitor will spend. In rural Pailin, though, not once was I requested to give anything. The only demand on me was that I should spend time beneath their roof to talk, and risk, perhaps, a glass of their rice spirit and some mosquito bites. That remote and backward Cambodia, for all its deprivations and its inequalities, its dangers and its negligence,  promises –deserves- a better future than the one that’s being mapped out in the shadows of Angkor. This is the Paradox of Progress.




Here, then, are two Cambodias which offer a health care lottery for its citizens or at least those citizens who cannot afford to pay for private care in Thailand . One is tended by non-government organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières. Those few Cambodians fortunate enough to live within MSF’s specialist orbits -for malaria in Pailin, for AIDS in Siem Reap and four other clinics- can expect treatment as efficient and effective as any offered by hospitals in Europe. The other is, at best, less reliable. Its harshest critics would say that, in a country where each year the same amount -$500 million- is received as official aid as is lost from the economy to corruption, the future is not promising. “What’s happening in Cambodia is a mixture of a virtually unregulated private sector, a very badly educated population that doesn’t have the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, and a government that is so lowly motivated and unambitious in health care that even when it does spend money it spends it ineffectively,” says Bart Janssens , as he contemplates what will happen when  MSF withdraws, as it must, from its projects in  Pailin and Siem Reap. “The Government health service in Pailin has not been able to deal with malaria on its own. So how can we trust their ability to deliver this complicated long-term AIDS treatment on their own? Without external support, I cannot see any sign that they will be able to deliver a worthwhile package of care.” There is silence in the room, as no-one there can find the energy or evidence to argue that, because of government promises to expand and improve, this judgement is pessimistic and unfair. It is a silence filled with fevers, chills, staring comas, diseases quick to seize their opportunity, and piles of sawdust under unattended beds.

© Jim Crace 2006



Reviews and introductions

1. Reviews for Quarto, the literary paper

2. ‘Coming out fighting’, a lengthy review of Norman Mailer's 1983 collection Pieces and Pontifications and Hilary Mills' Mailer: a biography (1983)

3. ‘See you on Judgement Day’, a review of Chet Raymo’s 1990 novel In the Falcon’s Claw

4. Crace on his own novel Quarantine, an introduction for American readers

5. Introduction to the Bridport Anthology 2004

6. Introduction to Modern Baptists by James Wilcox


1. Reviews for Quarto

The self-styled ‘literary paper’ Quarto, edited by poet Craig Raine, ran from 1979 to 1982. Jim Crace was a regular contributor of book reviews, and considered, among others, Paul Bailey, Fay Weldon, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Feb 1980: review of Paul Bailey, Old Soldiers

March 1980: reviews of Julian Barnes, Metroland, Fay Weldon, Puffball, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, In Evil Hour

July 1980: review of Patrick Marnham, Fantastic Invasion, a book of essays on Africa

September 1980: review of novellas by the Sudanese writer Tayed Salih, Season of Migration to the North and The Wedding of Zein.

In light of Crace’s subsequent comments on the importance of In Evil Hour to the development of his own voice, his review of this early work by Marquez is excerpted below:

The new novel from the Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, turns out to be an old one. Begun, apparently, in 1956, when Garcia Marquez was 28, In Evil Hour waited five years for completion, a further seven years for publication in Spanish – and another eleven years for this first translation into English. Snippets and characters from this short novel turned up earlier in the Big mama’s Funeral sequence of short stories (1962) but we must presume that this is a work which proved difficult and unsatisfactory for writer and publisher alike – now belatedly released to readers of English as lees from the vintage bottle which provided Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of allegorical invention, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

How In Evil Hour appears to Columbians I cannot guess. To the prosaic English reader, not used to the realist tradition of fiction, it is uncharted territory through which one must wander, sympathetic but hardly at ease – like a visitor to the son et lumière in the Columbian Rooms at the Museum of Mankind, fascinated and stimulated by the flora and fauna, the architecture and the artefacts, yet uninvolved and unsettled by the shock of non-recognition.

The chief “character” is the Garcia Marquez fictional town of Macondo which, like the actual Columbian town in which the writer was brought up, is small, declining, isolated, hide-bound and sluggishly corrupt. Though its attributes are intended to be broadly characteristic of Latin American towns in general, Macondo is precisely delineated. We are not meant to mistake it for any specific place, nor are its inhabitants – the gun-toting mayor, the woodsman who rides his mule into the kitchen, the poor townies carrying their houses, lock, stock and bolero, up and away from the flooding lowlands – much more than ‘types’ (judge, fortune-teller, priest, barber, widow)….Ethnography, rather than more intimate and analytical biography, is what is set to trap the attention. There is little self-analysis, no catharsis, no attempt to side-step type.

Macondoans…are simple functional devices through whom the state of a community (here, Garcia Marquez’s major concern) is dissected, described and defined. This town, in a country “patched up with cobwebs”, is…under siege from gossip. Some tittle-tattler, in the dead of night, is pasting up scurrilous pasquinades or lampoons, indiscriminately re-allocating the parentages and sexual allegiances of the stout citizens…A more self-assured community would shrug off such obloquies, but the people of Macondo are vulnerable…they know…an imaginative slander is more powerful than the truth…


2. Coming out fighting

The Times Literary Supplement, December 9, 1983

A review of Pieces and Pontifications, a ‘scrapbook’ by Norman Mailer, and Mailer: a biography by Hilary Mills.


3. See you on Judgement Day

The New York Times, March 4, 1990

A review of In the Falcon’s Claw: a novel of the year 1000, by Chet Raymo (New York: Viking, 1990), notable for the light it throws on Crace’s own preference for ‘fictional truths’ over 'historical accuracy’.

It is a pity that Chet Raymo did not have sufficient disregard for history to fabricate a brand new pope. Sylvester II, the Pontiff evidently foisted on this otherwise intelligent and interesting ‘novel of the year 1000’ by the indisputable dates of his papacy, is not well suited to his fictional role.

The historical Sylvester was the Scholar Pope, a learned pragmatist and mathematician reputed – with magic and the devil at his side – to have championed Arabic numerals, the pendulum clock and the subversive and precocious notion that the world was a sphere. His major contribution to the doctrines of the time was a handbook on the abacus.

Mr. Raymo’s fictional Sylvester is more cynical, more morally flawed. He is the Thomas a Becket of his day. As Gerbert – his baptismal name – he is the playful and profligate French novice, relishing the ‘delicious’ paradox that theology gives him license to study Sin: ‘God, what fun we had,’ he remembers, ‘sleeping in ditches, chasing filles de joie [girls of pleasure], debauching ourselves on Ovid and peaches.’ As Sylvester, in his middle years, he is transformed into a cautious and doctrinaire Vicar of Rome whose anti-intellectual creeds are ‘We do not need philosophy when we have Jesus’ and ‘To live with Christ, we must become dead to our own will.’

These – and other seemingly opportunistic articles of faith, given the Pope’s licentious and theologically dissident youth – are expressed in an exchange of letters between Sylvester and his old comrade-in-alms, the Irish monk Aileran of Skellig. It is these letters which provide the debating framework of the novel and in which the sensuous optimism of Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Mr. Raymo’s guiding text – is set against the fatalism of the Christian Scriptures.

It is, indeed, Aileran who is the narrator and subject of In the Falcon’s Claw. His memoir of his youthful and indulgent friendship with Sylvester, written mostly off the coast of Ireland in his ‘tiny cell on the bleak and shrill north face of the Skellig rock, three hundred feet above the pounding sea,’ provides the narrative framework of the novel. In it, Aileran, exiled by his former friend Gerbert for his unorthodox views, charts the public and private heresies that tempted believers in the closing years of the 10th century as Christendom prepared itself for the millennium. It was in the year 1000 – or so believed the mystics and the superstitious – that the ambiguous prophecies of Revelations 20 were to come to fruition with the return of Christ or Satan, the raising of the dead, the end of the world.

What better occasion than the eve of Judgement Day for a monk enlightened in the latest scientific ideas to reflect upon the privations and equivocations of the priestly life? And what better setting for such an elemental evaluation – presented by Mr. Raymo with admirable clarity – than to go ‘beyond Ireland, to the Skellig rock, to the outermost compass of creation’? There, Aileran, pinioned between nature and creation, faith and freedom, science and superstition, public virtue and private vice, the love of God and the love of a married woman, faces exile, excommunication, death. Yet despite the eloquence and pertinence of Aileran as a character and Skellig as a setting, the details of the historical Sylvester repeatedly summon and deflect the novel from its natural course.

In his first novel, Mr. Raymo does his best to nip-and-tuck the facts, so that the history can fit more snugly into the narrative. He anoints his Sylvester as Pope at least a year too early, for instance. And he poisons him three years before his time. He adds a coda to the novel that his Sylvester is ‘fictional’ and only ‘based on’ the actual Pope. But Aileran’s memoir of his friendship with the young Gerbert is – disconcertingly for a novel of debate – restlessly vagrant and picaresque, as it follows the historical course of events. The two clerics travel without good narrative purpose between the cushioned cloisters of Aurillac, Barcelona, Rheims and Rome simply because that is what the real Sylvester did. The novel has been shaped not organically, by its theme, but by an imposed curriculum vitae. Chet Raymo – physicist, astronomer, science journalist, teacher and author of several nonfiction books on science and the humanities – is evidently far too bound by his regard for factual truth to let his book breathe freely.

Yet, for all its historical ambivalence and the consequent distortions of its narrative structure, In the Falcon’s Claw remains an honorable and edifying novel about submission and dissidence, about passion and stoicism, about free will.

‘You ask for my abdication to the will of the Church,’ writes Aileran from his ‘remote perimeter of Christendom’ to Sylvester in Rome. ‘You ask me to become again a child. Then what have the years been for? What of the happiness and the pain? . . . If I am damned by the sin of Adam and saved by the vicar of Christ, then . . . what was any of it for?’ It is Mr. Raymo’s earnest efforts to confront and scrutinize such weighty issues that make his novel worthy of attention and respect.

© Jim Crace 1990


4. Crace on Quarantine

Crace’s introduction for American readers to his novel Quarantine can be found in the Books / Quarantine (1997) section of this web site, or by clicking here.


5. Introduction to the Bridport Anthology 2004

The Bridport Prize, established in 1973, is an important competition for fiction and poetry that attracts entries from all over the world. In 2004 the short story competition was judged by Jim Crace. “I’m looking for fine writing, of course, clarity combined with depth, a magnetic but economical narrative, all the usual things that are so well displayed in the best short stories,” Jim Crace said. “But the winners are likely to be those adventurous writers who are prepared to take the greatest risks. Much better to have aimed high and fallen short than to have produced a spotless story that offered you no challenges. It will offer the reader no challenges either.”


Crace’s report (below) will appear along with the winning entries in the Bridport Prize Anthology; for details please contact Bridport Arts Centre, South Street, BRIDPORT, Dorset DT6 3NR, UK.

This year the Bridport Prize for the best short story attracted more than 4000 entries, including some by newcomers, who given the effort, the chance and the good fortune, could well establish themselves as successful, published writers. That’s the dream, isn’t it?, whenever we submit our Jiffy bags of fiction to valuable and important competitions such as the Bridport, or e-mail our newly finished novel to a publishing house, or chance our arm with a literary agent picked randomly from the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. To make our writing public is to seek validation, not only for the prize money, of course (though that’s always welcome, even if the cheque is merely framed as evidence) and not only for the prospect of a little notoriety. No, the purest dream is just to see ourselves in print, to have what we have discovered, felt and imagined and then laboured to express as perfectly as possible set up in black and white and in the hands of strangers. We dream of being published, being purchased, being read. We do not dream of storing all our efforts in bottom drawers, along with those rejection slips.


So it is a chilling but not necessarily a sad fact, that out of those 4000 plus Bridport hopefuls only fifty or so – that’s one in eighty – displayed enough of the ambition and risk-taking that make for publishable, prize-winning fiction. But that is no cause for dismay and no reason at all for any of the less successful entrants to throw in the towel. How can it be anything but impressive and cheering when, in this spoon-fed age of television in which we are all encouraged to receive rather than transmit stories, that so many new, inexperienced, hesitant writers who might perhaps never see their names in print were nevertheless keen to test their instinctive narrative muscles by sitting alone for a day or so of imaginative introspection? The least successful stories – like the less tended gardens – are never without interest or beauty. Their readers might not encounter the perfect balance of depth and clarity, the finest of metaphors or the most mesmerising of plots, but there is nearly always sincerity and a charming, unguarded openness which can reveal as much about the way we see ourselves and our predicaments as some Great Works. In other words, even the least of the 4000 is worthy of respect and attention. If it’s nearly impossible to write the perfect short story, then it’s also pretty damned hard to write a very blemished one. All but 13 writers will regret not winning a prize, not achieving the dream on this occasion, but I am sure that there is not a single unsuccessful entrant who would prefer never to have completed their story.  Human beings are by nature narrative animals with unparalleled language skills and consciousness, both of which will atrophy if not exercised. The writing is reward in itself. Besides, there are other stories, other prizes, other chances. It’s back to work for Bridport 2005.


But what of the “fifty or so”? I read them and reread them this summer on the cliffs and beaches of the Isles of Scilly hunting for the winners amongst the wind-ripped manuscripts. I had not expected to encounter so many dysfunctional families or so much unembarrassed eroticism or such a high degree of psychiatric disorder or quite so many weird distortions of the everyday – sprouting duvets, ship-filled streets, an all-too-human wolf. If these fifty stories could be taken as fifty snap shots of Our Times, then the world would seem a very troubled, isolating, dispiriting and sexually active place indeed. So unlike the Isles of Scilly! But that is as it should be, of course. Narrative is drawn to the cracks and blemishes. “Happiness writes white,” according to the essayist, Montherlant. We turn to fiction for the greys and darker tones. The finest of stories expose us to – and so prepare us for – the fear, the failure, the despair. And love gone wrong, of course. And death.


The best of these fifty stories, then, for me, were those which were the most testing and the most threatening, and which displayed their seriousness of purpose and their writerly achievement by taking the most narrative risks – the awkward, ugly, violent grief of Alan McCormick’s Howl, for instance, or Meredith Andrew’s atmospheric and original response to post 9/11 America, or the wistful, loving heartlessness of The Peppermint Room and the eloquence of clocks and ferris wheels in Third Prize winner, Maura’s Arm by Emma Darwin. 


In the end there was a tussle for first and second prize, the US versus Oz. Both Dorene O’Brien’s #12 Dagwood on Rye and Janey Runci’s The Visit are very fine stories indeed, the first an entirely convincing, slow-burning, complicated tale of depression, medication and anxiety, the second an unblinking, compassionate and uncomfortable account of how we let ourselves and our parents down when they are too old to help themselves and we are old enough to know better.


Finally, it was the odder story of the two which took First Prize. Oddness has its strengths, in literature at least. Congratulations then to Dorene O’Brien, and to the other dozen prize winners who were the brightest but not the only points of light and inspiration in this constellation of 4000 stars.


© Jim Crace 2004



6. Introduction to Modern Baptists by James Wilcox


This introduction was written for the Penguin Modern Classics 2006 re-issue of James Wilcox’1983 comic novel of the American South.



In the summer of 1994, the New Yorker magazine carried a long and chilling article about James Wilcox, an American novelist I had admired and followed for almost ten years. I had read and reviewed his debut book, Modern Baptists, for the Times Literary Supplement during the autumn of 1983, just a few months before my own first encounter with the author’s home state and creative inspiration, Louisiana. I had judged his novel a delight, and commented, “Modern Baptists was clearly fun to write and, because James Wilcox has a sophisticated control of comic pace, his humour the chill of home truth, and his squibs at the expense of small-town America are rarely off-target, it is also fun to read.” Wilcox had published five novels by the time of the New Yorker piece, all of which – despite the few dissenters who were uneasy with his casts of blemished and eccentric characters – had been rapturously received in many influential quarters. He was described as “a comic genius” and “a master”. His admirers included Ann Tyler, Robert Penn Warren and Toni Morrison. He had won a Guggenheim.  He had a high-powered agent and an enthusiastic and supportive editor. He was, at 45, a successful author. 
Yet the New Yorker journalist, James B Stewart, a man who evidently understood a balance sheet (his own best selling Den of Thieves, an account of insider trading on Wall Street, was published that year) presented the 1994 Wilcox as kind, modest, talented, “distinguished” but woefully “unprofitable”.  He might be “a writer to make us all hopeful” (New York Times) and he might have invited comparisons to Dickens, Faulkner and – most tellingly – Flannery O’Connor, but he was still obliged to walk sixty Manhattan blocks to save a subway fare. No matter that Modern Baptists would soon be included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Cannon as “an enduring novel of significance”, its author still had to eke out three meals from a $4 chicken.  Apart from the rent money he’d borrowed from his parents that spring and the $100 he earned as an extra in a Macy’s commercial, his income for the year was not much more than $10,000.  Here was the problem all too familiar – then and now – to writers of literary fiction, especially those who employ comedy to explore weighty themes, he had The Respect but he hadn’t got The Sales. Attempts made by perplexed publishing wizards to reinvent and remarket Wilcox – either as a gay novelist or as a Southern humorist or as a serious New York literary stylist – made no difference, except perhaps to confuse and undermine his self-confidence. Wilcox was – and he remains – a singular voice, a “dark-minded outcast” in Brendan Gill’s phrase, not vocally gay, not implacably literary, and – as anyone who has heard his underStated speaking voice will testify –  not even stridently Southern, but a writer of tender, bleak comedies who – absurd and unjust though it might be – did not have and might never have a natural constituency of readers. He deserves better.



Reading Modern Baptists in late 1983 had not provided much practical preparation for my visit to Louisiana the following spring, nor was it meant to. What I expected and sought was the divided, corrupt and dangerous Louisiana that I had already encountered in films and news clips. Indeed, as I discovered, edgy New Orleans with its social and racial disparities, its rundown neighbourhoods, its jazz traps, its sweaty cultural pretensions, its good ’ol boys in their bad ’ol trucks, was on the surface at least, not that different from Hollywood’s dark portrayal of the city or to the sardonic world of Randy Newman, that unblinking lyricist of Dixie. But even though Wilcox’s invented town of Tula Springs might be within a bus ride of New Orleans, it was an altogether kinder, odder, safer universe, and somehow more convincing and more likely than the grainy truth too readily available to trouble-seeking journalists like me.


Although Wilcox had written the novel after working as an editor in New York and would, in fact, be a voluntary exile from the American South for nearly thirty years, he still valued his birth place too much to be grimly mocking or cynical at its expense – his later New York novels are much less forgiving – and he was more interested in social comedy than social upheaval or the toneless clamour of politics. If he was a realist, then, it was not his intention to be a gritty one.


Tula Springs could well be Ponchatoula, I thought, during my 1984 visit, when I drove north towards Mississippi in search of the more tranquil Louisiana described somewhat partially in the State Song as a place “prepared to share That good old southern custom, Hospitality so rare.” That real but similar sounding town was, after all, the almost contiguous neighbour of Hammond, where the Wilcox half-Methodist family of academics and musicians raised their son as a Catholic. But no, I realised that its location should be further to the north-east, closer to Bogalusa and the Pearl River, in the panhandle parishes of the state which were never part of the Louisiana Purchase and so were less Frenchified and more Baptist.


Tula Springs “is an absurdly subdued town, situated between a creosote plant and a toxic waste dump,” I wrote in my TLS review. “Its landscape of shotgun cabins, plaster mansions, cyclone fencing, pecan nut trees and crab grass is complemented by a population of chiropractors, cinema usherettes and turkey vultures.” But I incorrectly thought at that time that “Wilcox is not homesick” and that his novel was in some way mockingly hostile to his birth place. My subsequent rereadings of Modern Baptists – yes, this is a work that bears continued scrutiny and has not dated, maybe because it was never quite contemporary or time-tagged – have persuaded me that the opposite is the truth, that the novelist’s long dislocation in New York and his separation from home turf propagated in him a fond nostalgia for the Pelican State, a nostalgia which provides the novel with its gracious and forgiving optimism. Indeed, Wilcox has admitted as much himself: when he visited home from New York in the 1980s, he says, “I was always contrasting the way Louisiana was then, with my memories of what it was like growing up there. I found a tension between my memory of Louisiana and the actual Louisiana which was there right before my eyes. It was a good creative tension. It made me want to capture this sense of discrepancy between two times.”


It is into this rich, nostalgic loam that James Wilcox has planted his shuffling conga of ill-starred and unrequited lovers, with chunky Burma LaSteele, check-out girl at the Sonny Boy Bargain Store adoring her hopeless assistant manager, Bobby Pickens, while Bobby himself pursues the skinny counter assistant, Toinette Quaid, who has set her heart on Bobby’s parasitic Catholic half-brother, the handsome, coke-snorting FX… It is fertile ground for Wilcox’s kindly comic eye, and the resulting novel is touching, hilarious, and frenzied. “We’re not in a Jamesian, tightly controlled work of art with five characters interacting in a very refined manner, all on the same social level.” Wilcox has commented, “We’re actually in this jumbled mixture, with people from all walks of life and different economic backgrounds…. Actually, a lot of my writing is saying ‘no’ to those closed Jamesian worlds.”


Wilcox’s fond, tense, non-Jamesian world is one in which the author’s seriousness of purpose is well disguised, but it is none the less potent for that. He is no tragedian, perhaps, any more than he is a conventional realist – even the deaths in his novels are meant to cause narrative mischief rather than sorrow. Perhaps, then, this is the key to the New Yorker’s bafflement in 1994 and settles why it is that James Wilcox has enjoyed The Respect but not The Sales, or The Reputation. His unusual and determined levity is the reason why he has yet to be welcomed into that Grey Pantheon of contemporary American novelists who prefer gravity to playfulness. But Modern Baptists is not without seriousness. Its target is the crippling and narrow Puritanism of the South and proposes a new, low Baptism for believers who are “sick to death of hell and sin being stuffed down their gullets every Sunday.” No more of “that old-fashioned ranting and raving.” There would be a church “guided by reason and logic.” Here then – sadly, for reason and logic seem to have taken a beating in church politics recently – is a generous, optimistic rather than a prophetic novel, but one that might cause its readers to match the writer’s own nostalgia and hope for a South of simpler, kinder absurdities than those that currently afflict it. Wilcox’s version of his State Song might be a good deal more mischievous than the real one, but we must allow that he could sing its chorus with unembarrassed conviction, because it expresses well and simply what has driven him to write his rare and charming books:

Oh give me Louisiana,
The state where I was born.


© Jim Crace 2005


This section reproduces occasional pieces on a range of personal and literary subjects.

1. Howells the unread

2. Chesterton the radical

3. Conrad the racist

4. The century's greatest failures

5. Best Books

6. Likes, dislikes and the lessons of life

7. Truth, lies and fiction

8. First passions

9. "Can money buy you love?" The Financial Times questionnaire

10. Weepies

11. Holiday heaven and hell

12. On Birmingham

13. Small Talk

14. Belief


1. Howells the unread

From the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Three Writers in search of an Author’, broadcast in November 2001.


Some years ago, my fellow Brummie, David Lodge, the novelist, invented a mischievous little game called Humiliation for bookish dinner parties and reading groups and those occasions when Snobbery and Literature – and alcohol – are all you have in common with your guests.


Book launches, in other words.


The champion of Humiliation is the least well read amongst the company, the one most shamed by never having even tried a Dickens, say, or Proust, or anything by any of the Amises, or any Booker winner. The idea is to push the empty plates aside, to crowd around the table, reputations bared, and to boast your failings and omissions.


I’ve never read a Brontë novel, is usually my winner – and an outrage to my colleagues.


Only play Humiliation when you're drunk. It can be fun. But it can cruel, too, especially if there are “living writers” at the table. “Living Writers” – me included – don’t like jokes about their work. We like to think we are – as Shelley said – “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, that we can change the hearts and minds of readers – of the nation! – simply with the power of our prose.


Earlier this year, in September, on the day after Alice Howells died at the hardly decent age of 63 and the Telegraph obituary described her as  “a writer’s writer and an activist’s activist”, I was at the launch of my new book, The Devil's Larder, at the Yellow Basket off St. Martin’s Lane. We  – that is, my publisher from Penguin, four book page editors, two arts journalists and a couple of other authors – were stringing out the evening and the brandies – at Penguin’s expense – by playing Humiliation.


You'll be shocked to learn that one of the grander literati from The Times has never read a Hardy  – and that my publisher has “never finished” a single book by Nick Hornby, an author that he actually edits.


My boast  – on that unhappy day when her death had been announced and everybody there was saying what a force she was, how talented, how resolute – was that I’d never read an Alice Howells.


I was alone it seemed in my humiliation. Everybody else wanted, pretended, touchingly, on that day of all days, to be familiar with her work. Alan Beatty from the TLS allowed he only knew her early books. But one or two were lifelong fans. They’d lapped her up. I’d missed a treat, they said. Never having read a Howells felt much more shameful than never having suffered from a Hardy.


Of course, I went to Waterstones first thing next day. But, no, they'd had a few requests, but Alice Howells had not been on their shelves. Her books, let's say, were not in print.


They weren’t in print in 1962 when I first heard her speak.


I was 16. Easter Monday, in Trafalgar Square. This was the rally at the end of the Aldermaston march. I still have the cutting from the News Chronicle, and the photograph of speakers under Nelson on the plinth. Bertrand Russell. And in a line behind him, left to right, Ralph Schoenmann, Russell’s jutty – jawed American handmaiden; Peggy Duff, CND’s general secretary, in her white sneakers, with a cigarette; Canon Collins, in his cassock; Hugh McDiarmid, the kilted poet; and finally “the writer” in her yellow duffel coat, on tiptoes at the microphone, speaking to us on behalf of Youth Against the Bomb.


I can’t remember what she said, nothing startling, I guess. We all said pretty much the same in those straightforward times – but this I do remember. Unlike the other speakers on the plinth, Alice Howells did not use notes. She rose above the written word. She was passionate. She was certain. She was young and unassailable. She was the sort of writer that I aspired to be.


I tried to get her novels then, at Foyles and later at Housmans on the Caledonian Road, where all the peacenik books were stocked. No luck. I tried our local library. Again no luck. But then our local library didn’t stock Kerouac or Gorky or much of D.H. Lawrence in those days. Or even Sartre. So many books were unavailable.


Of course, we all know what she looked like, how, as the campaigns took their toll on her, she fattened first, except her face, then greyed, then – after 40 – grew into that henna’ed, rangey woman on the television and on radio, the token militant on Question Time, the constant banner holder on The News, the tough and tender antidote to Doctor David Starkey in The Moral Maze, the godless priestess on Thought for the Day, and even – memorably – the patient and reproving guest on Start the Week. Paxman failed to frighten her. Was even charmed, in fact. Unlike her fellow guest, a military historian, who took a sweet and measured savaging and called her peevishly – though not inaccurately, I think –  “Little Ms Unstoppable”.    


Unlike the other writers on the box – I’m guilty of this every time! –  she never took the opportunity to plug her latest book or glorify herself. Politics first and last. Literature was secondary. The publications that she touted were all pamphlets, leaflets, tracts. The dates she advertised were for the rally or the demonstration, not the LitFest or the bookshop reading. The numbers that she promoted were of the latest dead or unemployed or starving, not her ISBNs. She was an airwaves warrior.  For her the plastic sword was stronger than the steel-nibbed pen. She'd turned into a kind of Universal Rep for Peace and Change.


Yes, she was comfortable – as she had been on that first day in 1962 – with any microphone. A born broadcaster, in fact, the liveliest of guests and never lost for words. But Alice Howells seemed happiest caught accidentally, unawares, by the news camera, pushing leaflets, shouting slogans on the street, delivering her petitions to the embassies, picketing, arguing, pamphleteering.  Being an objector.


A hundred times in many years I’ve spotted her amongst the throng, glimpsed briefly on the screen. The grey head, then the henna, so familiar. That classless voice – an affectation, possibly –  protesting what was, for her, so plain, so obvious, so right. The little body, dwarfed by horses, policemen, vans. But always in the thick of it. Anti-apartheid, Peace in Vietnam, Release the Birmingham Six, Reclaim the Street, Abortion Rights, LiveAid, Stop the Bombing in Belgrade, Writers Against Racism, Confront the Front, Dump the Debt, Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out.


Alice Howells the writer never let us down.


I saw her offscreen for the second time in March 1989, soon after the famous fatwa, when I was down in London for the publication of my second novel. She'd called a meeting of fellow writers at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, hoping to organise some greater solidarity and sympathy for Salman than had been offered, for instance, by (amongst too many others) grumpy Roald Dahl and a surprisingly unsympathetic John Berger. I’d turned up at the rally not entirely for altruistic reasons. Of course, I wanted to defend a colleague against the ayatollahs. But I wondered also how the firebrand of Trafalgar Square looked and sounded in the flesh, now that she was fifty – and famous in a way. A sort of love affair, I guess.


The basement meeting room was almost empty, just six of us, two of them journalists who must have expected the Oxford Guide to Contemporary Writers made flesh. But there was no-one there for them to recognize or photograph or idolise except for Alice herself. She seized the moment, as she always did, and spoke with uncharacteristic scorn about her absent colleagues and contemporaries.


She’d phoned around, she said, to all the A-league writers on the shelves, she’d contacted everybody of note on the Society of Authors’ mailing list, she’d spoken personally to three Booker winners and a Nobel laureate. “The same old, petty English song,” she labelled their response. “Our writers are too stressed and busy with their books to vote, too grand to grace petitions with their famous names, too pressed to come on board the Freedom Bus, to even turn out on a mild night such as this to fight the Battle for the Book.”


She waved her hand towards the rows of empty chairs, not meaning to dismiss the few of us. “And this is all the support we get!”


She got the bottom, front page of the Guardian though, next day: “The author and campaigner, Alice Howells, at a meeting last night in Central London, attacked ‘the supine tendency’ in British letters and ‘those writers who seem to think that nothing matters in this world except their private texts and the sacred integrity of their prose.’ Unquote.


“Ms Howells, campaigning on behalf of Salman Rushdie in the wake of last month’s fatwa, criticised those ‘timid colleagues  [who] put their politics in to their books’.” She said, ‘It’s high time that these shrinking violets, though not so shrinking when it comes to self-promotion, showed their faces on the street, stood in line, and put their politics into their politics!’ ” 


The headline  – vintage, punning Guardian – was HOWELLS OF PROTEST AT THE LACK OF PROTEST.


I meant to ask her afterwards about her books, her many books. Which of her titles would she recommend? Who were her publishers? But, I think, already I had guessed. Her works – that phrase again – were not in print.


I let her get away intact.


I’ve never said a word to her.





Well, now she’s off the streets for good, a rather undramatic death, as it turns out, although you might find it a tender irony that Heart Failure was given as the cause. There was a memorial service for her on Saturday, a somewhat jollier affair than normal, held  – as you’d expect from Alice stalwart Howells, from Howls of Protest, from Little Ms Unstoppable – not in a church but  in the downstairs bar at Ronnie Scott’s. There was a band. Beer and grief and saxophones  – and everyone agreeing what a talent she had been.


There were no empty seats, of course, at this last meeting. The literati were all there, the Groucho mob, the supine tendency, the unacknowledged legislators of the world, some Booker winners and a Laureate, Alan Beattie from the TLS who only knew her early works, those lifelong fans who’d said at my book launch that I had missed a treat, not reading her.


There was Humiliation for them all.


They triumphed with their failings and omissions.


They hadn’t read the works of Alice Howells. Not one of them.


For here’s the comedy, divine and disconcerting. She never published anything, though no-one mentioned it – or even noticed it for forty years. You only have to call yourself a writer once – as Alice must have done when she was wearing yellow duffel coats – and the fiction sticks. She was the writer-author-novelist even after death. One of her Celebrants, a biographer not noted for his metaphors, described her as “the nation’s boldest pen.”


Well, yes indeed, in a way she was the nation’s boldest pen. I’ve read some of the many leaflets that she wrote. They’re bold. And powerful. I’ve seen those banners marked in black with slogans that she coined. I’ve heard her speak with thrilling clarity. She could always summon up a storm of words. It’s just that Alice Howells was not the author of a book. She put her art in to her politics.


A hoaxer, then?


I understand – a rumour, no-one that I know of’s heard the actual tape – that she once admitted as much in a radio interview for BBC World Service when someone asked the questions I had failed to ask that night in 1989, which of her books she’d recommend, Who was her publisher? “I’m not in print,” she said, not sheepishly at all, according to the whispers and the hearsay. “I am a writer though. I really am. I send my novels out. But they come back, rejected, every time. No bloody good, you see?”


Sometimes I’m asked at readings or by journalists to name my favourite novelist or to say which writer has influenced me the most  – and I’m being honest when I reply, It’s Alice Howells. 


I’ll not forget her standing, tiptoes, on the plinth when all of us were young, her chin turned upwards at the microphone, her hair as wild and wind-torn as the pigeons in the square.


I’ll not forget the modest body, dwarfed by horses, policemen, vans, glimpsed briefly on our TV screens so many times, and pitching all its art and hope against the walls, the doors, the shields, the closed and stony faces.


I’ll not forget her piping, optimistic voice, directed at the failings and omissions of the world.


I’ll not forget the night she waved her hand at me across the rows of empty chairs.


So what’s so marvellous about her work? my questioners persist. “No bloody good, you see?”


I take mischievous pleasure  – and why not? –  in the thought of what my audience might do, my questioners, when they get home with my recommended writer scribbled down on their book lists. They go on to the internet, perhaps, type her surname in the Search box of amazon.co.uk. They watch the egg-timer sift the published writers of the world  – the living and the dead, the celebrated and the poor, the scrutinised, the skipped, the much adored, the self-obsessed – until the screen produces its results. There’s Hannah, Kelly, Michael, David, Jeff, Georgina, Ann. But not a single Alice Howells.


There is the neverending, everpleasing prospect, too, whenever they’re in Waterstones or Books Etc, lost amongst those lines of novels by writers who have never stood in line  – and won’t! –  that they might trace their fingers  – as I have often done –  along the alphabet of spines until they find that non-existent space between Elizabeth Jane Howard and Victor Hugo where Alice might have squeezed herself if only she had thought that words were mightier than deeds.


© Jim Crace 2001


2. Chesterton the radical

Sunday Telegraph February 13 2000

The UK newspaper The Sunday Telegraph asked contributors for their ‘most under-rated book or writer’. Jim Crace nominated G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

G.K. Chesterton has gone out of fashion. He almost deserves it. His non-fiction (apart from the literary monographs, and one or two of the more irreverent essays) can be crusty and dated. He is a master of the ballad form, but his verse despite its gusto is reactionary. His Father Browne stories are only amiable. And his later, religiously conservative and anti-semitic outbursts are, well, a load of old Bellocs. But before his conversion to Catholic medievalism in 1922, there was a more radical and subversive Chesterton, one who favoured a redistribution of inherited land, for example, and was unfashionably pro-Boer during the white tribal wars in South Africa. This younger, radical Chesterton was the author of at least three undervalued novels. Two, The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Flying Inn, are fine, exuberant books, certainly equal to works by more celebrated contemporaries, such as Conrad and Wells. The third, The Man Who Was Thursday (subtitled A Nightmare), should be recognised as a Twentieth Century classic. Its themes of art and dissent, order and chaos, are still urgent and contemporary. Thursday is an extravagant allegory of anarchists, poets and spies, unparalleled in British fiction for its commingling of hilarity, cynicism and high seriousness. I adore it.

© Jim Crace 2000


3. Conrad the racist

Daily Telegraph 14 October 1999

The companion-piece to the above – Crace’s choice for most over-rated book.

HEART of Darkness must have seemed startling, even courageous, on publication in 1902. Never mind the clumsy rhythms of its prose, the book’s visionary, metaphorical tone was undoubtedly challenging. That’s the problem. If the novel hadn’t been so daringly - and prophetically - modern it might not have proved so harmful. Its insinuating voice has been the Trojan horse by which Conrad’s xenophobic, illiberal and essentially Victorian sensibilities have been smuggled into the 20th century.

Conrad’s Africans are ‘cannibals’, ‘brutes’, ‘savages’ and ‘niggers’, more frightened of the screech of a steam whistle than the crack of a rifle. He provides an Africa of ‘exalted and incredible degradation’, ‘a place of darkness’ and ‘mad terror’ which is malign enough to awaken the ‘forgotten and brutal instincts’ of its European visitors. Great literature? Or just silly?

Even the title itself has become shorthand for equating Africa and blackness with savagery. I recently heard the phrase resurrected by BBC foreign correspondents (who ought to have known better) in coverage of events in Rwanda and Sierra Leone – but not of white Kosovo, of course, or East Timor.

I want to level at Heart of Darkness a serious charge, that it, like Mistah Kurtz himself, is a tarnished, racist and nasty piece of work. ‘The horror! The horror!’ indeed.

 © Jim Crace 1999


4. The century’s greatest failures

New Statesman ‘Millennium’ edition (20 December 1999-3 January 2000)

The UK magazine The New Statesman asked people to nominate ‘the biggest flops of the past hundred years’. Here is Jim Crace’s list:

1. The Christian churches, for failing to withstand the grander narratives of science.

2. The planet’s ecosystem, for failing to withstand the meaner narratives of science.

3. American foreign policy, for entrenching dictatorships and undermining democracies, when the intention (mostly) was to achieve the opposite.

4. Communist Russia, for governing its citizens almost as badly as post-communist Russia.

5. All but one of the Labour Party leaders since Attlee, for trying to please and placate the wrong class.

6. Architects.

© Jim Crace 1999


5. Best Books

From The Week (12 January 2008), six bird books which deliver more than ornithology:

The Goshawk by T.H. White (NRYB Classics, £8.99) Isolated in a makeshift gamekeeper’s cottage in 1936, White grapples with loneliness and depression by attempting – and failing – to train a captured goshawk. He does find solace, though, in the rueful beauties of the English countryside – as will the reader.


The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux in USA; UK publication due 2008) A rich, joyful and thoroughly engrossing philosophical work – essential reading for anyone who cares about the natural world and how we might accommodate ourselves to an implacable universe but does not want to be preached at.


This Birding Life by Stephen Moss (Aurum, £12.99) Much more than the sum of its 109 parts, this anthology of the naturalist’s gentle, intimate and instructive Birdwatch columns from The Guardian, is as much a celebration of “our local patch”, the city park, the back garden, the neighbourhood reservoir, as it is the depths of the countryside.


The Snow Geese by Willam Fiennes (Picador, £7.99) On the Road with birds and landscape instead of marijuana and jazz. Fiennes migrates from Texas to the Canadian Arctic by taxi, car and Greyhound bus, under the beating shadows of a million geese. Despite the trepidations of the chase, he records a reassuring world of order and serenity.


The Big Year by Mark Obmascik (Bantam, £6.99) This is a true and unexpectedly exhilarating tale of guile, obsession and competitiveness as rich and involving as any novel. Four extreme and possibly dysfunctional twitchers from America compete to spot the most species of bird in a single year. You will care.


The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (Pimlico, £17.99) Quammen’s solemn purpose is to discover and elucidate why it is that the bird life of islands is so anomalous (and  threatened), but his readers are also treated to a thrilling adventure tale, inspiring glimpses of the world’s remotest places, and literature’s clearest and most compelling account of Darwinism.

From The Daily Telegraph’s Books of the Year 2003.

Two sports books which indulged my increasingly romantic but decreasingly fruitful association with tennis and cycling, with rackets and sprockets, gave me the most uncomplicated reading pleasure in 2003. Matt Seaton’s The Escape Artist (Fourth Estate) records the body-shaved author’s obsessive training rides into the back-lanes of Kent while he tries to shake off not only his fellow road racers from the Velo Club de Londres but also the crippling burden of knowing that back home his wife, the journalist Ruth Picardie, is dying of cancer.  Tim Adams’ On Being John McEnroe  (Yellow Jersey Press) is, thank heavens, an unembarrassed hagiography but perfectly judged and insightful, particularly when dissecting that decade-long on-court romance between McEnroe and Borg.

From The Guardian newspaper’s poll of best books of 2001.

The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen (Continuum). It’s not the most enticing of titles, but Rosen’s wise and surprising “journey between worlds” has been for me the most enriching read of 2001. Ostensibly Rosen’s mission is to sentimentalise and dignify the world wide web as a modern equivalent to the scriptures. Non-Jews and non-nerds should not be deterred. Actually, the book delivers very little that is new about either the internet or Judaism. What you might discover instead is a stunning and gentle restatement of something very old: that despite the dislocations and disparities of the world, despite the new technologies riding roughshod over our habits and routines, tenderness prevails.

From a poll of best books of 2000.

The Hunter, by Julia Leigh (Faber), is my novel of the year: a surprising and outstanding debut by a writer with the grace and skill of an old hand.

From The Guardian newspaper’s poll of best books of 1999.

I don’t read much fiction but I did enjoy and admire Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, Grace Paley’s Collected Stories, and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. 1999 was a vintage year for nature writing and for science – notably Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is, a gripping if not entirely graspable history of zero, and The Red Hourglass, Gordon Grice’s exuberantly irreverent hike amongst the predators in his Oklahoma backyard. For the New Year I’ve shipped in a hefty copy of Phaidon’s Century – a hundred years, a thousand photographs, and nothing to smile at.

© Jim Crace 1999,2001, 2003, 2008


6. Likes, dislikes, and the lessons of life

The Guardian Questionnaire (date tbc)

Saturday editions of the UK newspaper The Guardian include a whimsical celebrity questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? On the cliffs above Porthgwarra, with my family and a picnic.

What is your greatest fear? Rollercoasters.

With which historical figure do you most identify? Being Coleridge might have been a laugh.

What has been your most embarrassing moment? The Thatcher years.

What makes you depressed? The betrayals of Blairism.

What is your favourite smell? Sunday in the garden - bonfire smoke, lawn cuttings and creosote.

What is your favourite building? Spaghetti Junction when the lupins are in flower.

What is your favourite book? Roget’s Thesaurus – a present from my father in 1955.

What is your favourite fantasy? Winning a mountain stage on the Tour de France.

How did you vote in the last election? Socialist Labour. (our local ‘New’ Labour candidate and MP sends his children to public school. No votes for him.)

How will you vote in the next election? Still no votes for him.

Should the Royal Family be scrapped? Yes, set them free to lead useful, private lives (but not in our street).

Do you believe in monogamy? Anything else is illegal. Check your dictionary.

Which living person do you most despise and why? The road rage psychopath who came at me with a metal bar – and Norman Tebbit, of course.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Of the seven virtues, I don’t rate Prudence, Temperance or Faith.

What is your greatest regret? My father’s death, in 1979.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life? Higher income taxes to fund increased public expenditure.

What would your motto be? Never cross a picket line.

How would you like to die? Big heart attack (after winning a mountain stage…)

Do you believe in life after death? No. I’m a sentimental atheist, but not that sentimental.

How would you like to be remembered? Jim who?

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Everything is worth the effort.

Compiled by Rosanna Greenstreet. Permission requested.


7. Truth, lies and fiction

From an interview with Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times (16 July 1989).

I’m not interested in truths, like drawing an accurate picture of the real world. I’m interested in exploring the verities of the human condition.

There is no intervention when you’re writing fiction, no duty to a truth which is outside of you – it’s a great indulgence to me. I believe that in some respects, if you hit the vein of storytelling right on the head, then you can come up with lies which are more powerful than any truth.


8. First passions

From the bol.com web site.

These are my very first and my most recent passions in music and literature:

On the Road by Jack Kerouac: when I was a teenager the photo of Jack with his manuscript, written on an unbroken roll of kitchen paper in only 70 hours, persuaded me that literary fame was just three days away. I was wrong. And I’m no longer a fan of the novel either.

The first piece of music that really moved me came (repeatedly) from a neighbouring flat in north London when I was about ten. It was a 78" of The Road to Mandalay ("Where the flyin’ fishes play") sung by some fellow with a plummy voice, but exotic, sexy and subversive nevertheless. Great lyric by Kipling. Every time I hear it my head dissolves.

My new passion is for natural history writers from America. They have the scale and the wilderness to nourish great landscape texts. One of the best is Oregon’s Barry Lopez and his finest work so far is Arctic Dreams. Every sentence makes me want to get up and walk. A sort of miracle.

But my true indoors obsession is contemporary music, both jazz and classical. A writer and player who combines both is the American pianist, Uri Caine. His speciality is mischievous and adventurous reworkings of dead composers, including Schumann, Wagner and (best of all) Mahler. Treat yourself.

© Jim Crace 2000


9. "Can money buy you love?"

The Financial Times gets to the heart of the matter.

1. What has been your best buy? My 18-gear Dawes Super Galaxy (£575 in 1991) and Shandy the mongrel (£8 in 1992). Unfortunately, walking the one stops me riding the other. Someone should invent a pedal dog.

2. What has been your worst buy? An electric powered lawn mower (to save time and effort). Useless. A good lawn is always worth the expenditure of time and effort. Stick with the pusher. Down with progress (but only in the garden).

3. How much do you spend a month on clothes? £20? I impulse shop about twice a year, and usually come back with cheap, black replacements for the cheap, black stuff I bought the last time.

4. If you won a million in the Lottery…: The lottery’s a con. And day-dreaming £1 million is a pointless distraction.

5. What has been your most expensive purchase? We once had dinner at Rick Stein’s in Padstow.

6. What tends to be your greatest extravagance? Contemporary music CDs, frequent holidays, garden plants, take-away baltis.

7. What and when was your first job? I was a Television Assistant with VSO (Vast Salaries Overseas) in the Sudan in the late Sixties. The pay was pocket money plus a free Chinese pushbike (which was about as useful as an electric powered lawn mower).

8. What do you consider to be a good investment? I don’t believe in investments or stock trading. I believe in having a job and being paid properly for it.

9. What has been your favourite holiday? Our annual family favourite is August on St. Martins in the Isles of Scilly. The rented farmhouse costs about £800 a week, but once you’ve arrived there’s nothing to spend your money on, except the trip home.

10. What do you do for fun? Walk dog, mow lawn, play tennis, put world to rights.

11. What is your biggest fear? Japanese knotweed and lawn moss.

12. How will you finance your retirement? By not retiring.

13. If you could give up work tomorrow, what would you do? Stagnate.

14. What is the most useful financial lesson that you have learnt? Never lend when you can give.

15. Can money buy you love? Probably not, but poverty can destroy your emotional life and a little extra cash might rescue it.

16. Who or what would you like to have been? Robert Louis Stevenson, with his donkey, in the Cevennes.

18. What would be your message to the world? The Tories hate you. Hate them back.


10. Weepies

From The Sunday Telegraph

Novels frequently moved me to tears when I was younger. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, for example. Nowadays it is only  films that make me blub. I have hardened against literature. Hollywood has sentimentalised my reflexes. The only time during the last ten years that I have wept uncontrollably while reading a novel was on a flight back home from Melbourne. The book was Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time - the best and most heartfelt novel by a writer who has never written a heartless one. McEwan’s themes of parenthood and loss twanged a personal chord. I thought that my shameless lachrymosity was due to flight fatigue, the curious public privacy of a plane journey, and the fact that I was missing my own children at the time. But I read the novel again this year, in bed – and snivelled again, just as uncontrollably.


11. Holiday heaven…

From The Daily Telegraph

Which was your best holiday?

We spend most of August on St. Martins in the Isles of Scilly, six square miles, one hundred inhabitants, and a beach to ourselves. It always provides our best and most stimulating holiday of the year. But you won’t like it there. Stay away.

What’s the best hotel you’ve ever stayed in?

I don’t stay in “the best hotel” if I can help it. I always look for something slightly shabby and mid-range where I won’t look out of place and where the staff are too overworked to be obsequious. The Seneca in Chicago, for example.

What do you need for a perfect holiday?

The company of my wife, a packed lunch and a low tide.

What do you always take with you?

Binoculars, penknife, thermos, and more maps than are strictly necessary.

What’s the best piece of travelling advice you've been given?

Never write postcards, never take photographs, never keep a diary.

Where do you want to go next?

The underpopulated east coast of Canada looks irresistible, especially Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.



…and Hell

What was your worst holiday?

Touring Yugoslavia alone in the Tito years without a word of Serbo-Croat and in a diesel-fuelled car at a time when diesel was almost unattainable. I was so lonely and starved of conversation by the third week that, despite being a dogmatic atheist, I made the pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine of Medugorje  for “the apparitions of Mary” just because I expected to find some Irishmen there.


And the worst experience on holiday?

In Morelia, Mexico, many years ago, when I was knocked unconscious with the butt of a gun and bundled into a wardrobe while my then girlfriend was assaulted.

What’s the biggest packing mistake you've ever made?

My wife and I were on a long motor tour of France and Spain. On the third day we bought a huge botte of fresh garlic at the Garlic Fair in Blois, stowed it in the boot amongst our sleeping bags and forgot about it. Two weeks later, camping in the heat of Andalucia, we finally unpacked our marinated bedding.  Sweet dreams.

What’s the worst hotel you've ever stayed in?

An academics’ hostel in Brazilia while on a reading tour as a guest of the British Council. The rooms were curtainless cells with no washing facilities and punitive beds. Our hosts moved us to something snazzier as soon as my female colleague, a well-known British novelist, started smashing up the furniture.

What do you avoid on holiday?

Cafés, restaurants and bars during daylight hours. Such a waste of walking time.

What do you hate about holidays?

Nothing. Not even going home.

12. On Birmingham

My City Life

From the Birmingham magazine CityLiving

Describe an average day at work

Walk to the office (14 steps down from the bedroom to the converted garage in Moseley where I write); work at the computer for six hours (either Solitaire or Internet Backgammon); make determined and significant progress with my ongoing novel (80 words, max.); promise myself never to waste another working day, starting tomorrow; tea.

Tell us about your new book 'The Burning Girl'.

I’ve never written a book called The Burning Girl but if I had then every word would be hammered out on the anvil of truth and every bodice would be ripped.

Describe the scene in Birmingham to someone who's never been here.

The City Council keeps telling us that ours is a European city. Well, they’re wrong. Ours is a Commonwealth City and an immensely harmonious, successful one. It’s not beautiful exactly, but it is vibrant and inventive. We have the clubs, we have the parks, we have the street life, we have an appetite for anything that’s new.

When you're off duty where do you hang out?

Billesley Tennis Centre, MAC for the park and for the films, the CBSO Centre for the unmissable Birmingham Jazz Series, Moseley Bog for the dog.

Best place for a meal?

I’m lucky that the two nearest commercial premises to our house –in Woodbridge Road, Moseley – are also two of Birmingham’s best restaurants: The stylish Kababish balti house where Mohammed Ali had his first decent curry and, just over the road, Il Ponte di Legno, specialists in Moroccan pasta and Italian couscous. 

Best bar?

I never go to bars or to pubs – but my daughter who is 18 recommends the Indi in the Arcadian and the Med at the Custard Factory so long as people my age don’t go there.

Where do you grab a coffee or lunch?

I don’t drink coffee and I don’t eat lunch unless it’s a picnic – in which case I recommend the University of Birmingham’s gardens at Winterbourne, the far side of Walton Hill on Clent or – in summer – the meadows off Dark Lane in Wythall.


Where is the best place to read in Birmingham?

On the bus.

Best place to get away from it all.

Walk the canal from Brindley Place to Spaghetti Junction. Beneath the columns and traffic-rattled girders there is the confluence of three canals and three rivers, a beautiful if neglected cathedral-like space, and the most unexpected calm. (You’ll only think I’m joking if you’ve never been there.)

If there is one thing about Birmingham you would like to send Room 101,
what would it be?

The River Rea has got to go. It simply isn’t big and grand enough for the new Birmingham centre. Our city needs a great wide river and some fine bridges.

What do you say to Birmophobes?

You won’t be happy here.



13. Small Talk

From the ‘Small Talk’ column of the Financial Times, pub. 5 January 2008.

Who is your perfect reader?

Someone who doesn't think the natural world comprises only nightingales, daffodils and rainbows. Someone who doesn’t hate rhythmic prose.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Flann O'Brien’s The Third Policeman.

What books are by your bed?

Malcolm Folley’s Borg Versus McEnroe, and Coltrane by Ben Ratliff.

What was the last book you couldn't finish?

I’ve never finished anything by Dickens.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Edith Piaf on my left. Robert Louis Stevenson on my right.

What is the strangest research you've done?

For The Gift of Stones, I spent an afternoon chasing a flock of Canadian geese.

What book changed your life?

In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, taught me you don’t have to write realist fiction.

What would you go back and change?

My father wouldn’t have died before his time. There’s not a day I don’t miss him.

Do you rewrite as you go along?

From the first word.

What would you change about yourself?

I should have been kinder when I was younger.

What painting do you wish you owned?

Jackson Pollock’s Mural. It’s currently for sale.

What book do you wish you'd written?

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

What is your favourite place in the world?

Birmingham. It’s a city where the future is being mapped out, rather than the past being replayed.

Your house is on fire - what do you take with you?

The fishtank.

Can you remember the first novel you read?

Robinson Crusoe. I loved his trips out to the boat, the idea of making a life from what can be salvaged.

How would you introduce your own child to literature?

The novels of Graham Greene. There's travel, clarity, great writing, and moral lessons.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It means I can encounter the extreme things that life offers without experiencing them.

Compiled by Angel Gurria-Quintana


14. Belief

A transcript of a talk with Joan Bakewell from the BBC Radio series ‘On Belief’, broadcast 27 December 2007

Q: I'm in conversation with a writer - a writer who published his first novel at the age of forty, and now at the age of sixty-one has nine novels to his name. It's been a progress that's won increasing acclaim from critics and those who award literary prizes, matched occasionally by some bewilderment among his loyal readers. Jim Crace refuses to be categorised. Each of his books is so thoroughly individual, so entirely different from the last one he wrote, that he once said "With each new book, I alienate my last readership." This after his fifth book Quarantine, written in 1997, was followed by Being Dead in 2000. It was Quarantine that prompted a good deal of comment from further afield than the traditional literary critics. Its subject matter, the 40 days spent by Jesus in the wilderness, struck a chord with the times, already much given to ideas of religion's revival. Being Dead, insistently unconventional, opens with the murder of two people, and resolutely refuses to solve the detective mystery, being about bigger mysteries altogether - the nature of life, of death, and what might come after. His latest - The Pest House - is about America in some post-catastrophic event in the future.

Jim, it's Quarantine and Being Dead that have the content matter that is relevant for this programme, that's not to neglect the others. Did you intend them to stir up religious attitudes and responses in people?

Crace: When I'm writing, I can hardly see the end of the next sentence, let alone finishing the novel, let alone them being published and getting responses from readers, and so it's a very enclosed world. And my enclosed world at that time was one in which I was asking myself a question as an atheist. And that was "What is the nature of this thing that I don't have - belief - in the case of Quarantine? And is it possible to come up with some narratives of comfort in the face of death for those of us who don't believe in God?" So those were the questions I was posing, and I didn't expect any response at all. The books could've been a failure – I didn't know what the answers were going to be. You just sit down and you grapple with the, the sentences on the screen.

Q: Well shovel-loads of praise and y'know 'Big hit, good seller' and so on. But let's go back to what had brought you to that point, because you were born in Enfield, working class family, grammar school boy - no religion in your background at all. In fact a deliberate absence of religion. Now that's quite rare in this society.

Crace: It was certainly rare then - it's not so rare now. I wasn't even baptised, and that kind of set me aside, particularly when I went to the grammar school, the only boy from the flats that did go to the grammar school. And on the first day I was told two things - one that I would have elocution lessons instead of PT, because my voice was too Londonish - and also I was asked what my religion was so that they could allocate me what RI classes to go into. And I had to say "Well I haven't been, haven't been christened." "Well what church would your parents go to once a year?" "None at all." "What is your religion?" "Atheist." And so I was put in the 'waiting room' as it were in, in the Geography room during assembly with the Jews and with the few Muslims at the school who were boys who were the sons of Turkish Cypriots. But the family background, even though it was clearly hostile towards the Church, it was hostile towards the Church in that old-fashioned, 1930s sense. It was a political atheism. So when my father said that he didn't believe in God, it wasn't that he'd especially thought through the big s...supernatural issues. I don't think he was introspective enough to do that, but he recognised that the Church was in the hands of the ruling class, if you remember that phrase 'the ruling class'. And in his experience, particularly in the '30s and '40s, the ruling class seemed to own everything from the Army and the Universities and the Banks and the Royalty - all the way through to language. You might remember that the three terms that we used to approve of the way we speak are 'BBC English, The Queen's English, and Oxford English' - all class based em judgements. So when my father said "I don't believe in God," he was basically saying "I don't believe in Capitalism." But it was nevertheless a very rich background, and a very loving background and a very embracing background.

Q: When you were told this by your father, did you, having been told it didn't exist, know what other people meant when they spoke of God?

Crace: I did, but I think that I was dismissive of it even then. I was uncomfortable with the 'pomp and circumstance'. I didn't like the ritual. The narratives that I heard seemed to be rather infantile and, and badly thought through. I...I at that time was already a storyteller, I was a kid that told big tales. I would n...always embellish an anecdote, I would always rearrange the facts to make it more amusing.

Q: But a, I mean a believer might say "Well God doesn't like all the ritual, He thinks it's overdone," and "God doesn't really approve of all those silly, Sunday school stories, but nonetheless, there is something called God." That hadn't really occurred to you?

Crace: Oh it occurs to me of course - but it never… I was clearly the kind of person that, that was never going to flourish with. Now of course, if you are brought up in that kind of background – a rather Stalinist dogmatic socialist/atheist background, you're gonna do one of two things. You're going to reject it and want to become something else, or you're going to embrace it. And because I loved my parents - both my Mum and my Dad - I embraced it because embracing it was one way of pleasing them.

Q: So you didn't have a rebellious period and start going to the Catholic Church?

Crace: Not for one second - I was a political activist - that's what I wanted to do. As soon as I was thirteen or fourteen I was in CND and The United Nations Association and The Movement for Colonial Freedom - all of that stuff. That was what I wanted to engage with - I wanted to engage with problems on the Earth rather than imagine problems in Heaven. It wasn't until my father died that I realised what an inadequate set of, of beliefs his were. And I think that's really, that's the moment that Being Dead and Quarantine became inevitable books for me.

Q: What was inadequate about his atheism?

Crace: Well, it was only a political atheism - it wasn't a set of beliefs - it was an absence of beliefs. Now what it didn't address was, is the big issues. The issues that make us have religions all over the world. It's not a mistake that people believe in God in all societies. Why do they believe in God? They believe in God because they are in awe of a frightening universe. They are in fear of inevitable death, and they want some explanations for this extraordinary fact that we are here. Y'know it, it makes my brain dissolve at least once a day when I think "We're here - it's me, it's now." And you want some stories to make you feel comfortable with that. And my father's set of beliefs never addressed it, so that when he died, he had no ritual that he could go through. He said, he gave us instructions. He died in 1979 and he was dying of cancer. And he said to us "I don't, I want an atheist's funeral - in other words you don't tell anybody that I'm dead, nobody comes to the church, it's not gonna happen at a church anyway. There are no flowers, there's no eulogies - certainly there are nobody, nobody reading from the Bible, or singing hymns. I want you, Richard your brother and, and Mum to take my body to the Co-op crematorium and I want you not even to collect the ashes." We could've taken the ashes and, and scattered them on his allotment, which is what we should've done. And of course because we loved my Dad, we did what he asked us to do. And that was a huge mistake, because first of all he, we could've done whatever we wanted - he'd've never have known. But it meant that he left without anybody paying proper attention to what a decent, loveable man he was.

Q: And indeed, his atheism had left you without the means to mourn in the traditional way.

Crace: Yes absolutely. And I didn't mourn for many, many years - I was unable to mourn because it didn't give us the chance. And I went back to Enfield, the part of London where we'd lived, especially to try and mourn. And I went to the flat where we'd been brought up and I felt nothing. I went to the house that they'd moved to after I'd left home and I felt nothing. But then I went to his allotment and I burst into tears then, because that was where his ashes should've been, and that's where I could, I could picture him.

Q: So what kind of funeral were you, might you have?

Crace: That's a funny question. Y'know, because my Dad was right. My Dad was right to hate all that stuff, to hate the hypocrisy of it. And there's something about me that w...also wants to go the same way as him, but my wife has already said that she's chosen the hymns. And, and death's an, it's not for you - you've gone - it's for the people that stay behind.

Q: And ritual has a function in any life, doesn't it?

Crace: Yes. Yes it does. And that's I think why I'm, I wanted to address that whole issue of what religion...of the failings of atheism, the bleakness of atheism. If atheism were to triumph - and maybe it will triumph because Science seems to be elbowing religions into, into more and more corners and, and, and religion seems to inhabit the more precarious spaces. If religion were to atrophy, then what a terrible state the world would be in if all of the atheists who remain, the growing number of atheists who remain have no transcendence, and have no ritual, and have no way of marking emotionally and sentimentally the passing of people that they've loved. So that was a big issue for me and that was the issue that, especially Being Dead tried to deal with, by looking at death hard in the eye.

Q: Well we'll come to 'Being Dead' in a moment. Let's talk about 'Quarantine' though - because that is Jesus' forty days, forty nights in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. You've had no religious upbringing - you've not been to Sunday School, you've not learnt the hymns and the rituals. Did you read the Bible? Did you go and do a lot of scholarship on this episode?

Crace: To write books you don't need to do research. To write books you need vocabulary.

Q: But you need to know about the event.

Crace: Not especially, I don't think. A good liar doesn't need to know the event. If you meet somebody that is telling the truth, but they don't have the vocabulary for it, you don't believe them. The trick...

Q: No, but I mean someone must have told you that Jesus went to the desert for forty days.

Crace: Oh yes. Oh well I mean you can't miss out on those things, any more than you can miss out on 'the Theseus legend' or, or, or y'know the Anansi stories of, of Nigeria or whatever. It doesn't make it true that there are Minotaurs, or that monkeys can be gods.

Q: Now did you set out in dealing with Jesus going into the wilderness, which he finds quite a busy place, as there are plenty of people coming and going through the wilderness. I found that rather interesting, that it's a peopled place.

Crace: Yes.

Q: Did you regard it as an attempt to explain that episode as what might well have been the practical business that went on, which gave rise to the legend?

Crace: I didn't intend anything with that book. I let the book evolve organically and I let that happen, because narrative is ancient and narrative knows a lot. But when I started that book, there was no intention at all that Jesus would be a character in it. What happened very briefly, was that at the top of my road in Moseley in Birmingham there was a, a house for people with mental health problems. And I visited it one day, I was invited in to look round, and I saw a, a building full of people living on the edge with nothing in common except that they were at a despairing time in their life. Y'know, they could be schizophrenic or they could be alcoholics or they could have some kind of other mental problem. And I thought "This is an interesting subject for a novel - to have a novel in which all the characters are living on the edge. But where can I set it? I'm not a realist - where can I set it?" And one day through the post, I received a postcard from some Jewish friends who were visiting Jericho. And the photograph showed Jabal Kurantal, which was the, the cliff outside of Jericho where Jesus was supposed to have spent his forty days. And I noticed one thing - not that there was a chapel over the one cave where Jesus was supposed to be, but there were hundreds of caves. And I, it occurred to me "I bet if Jesus was a historical figure - and He was, and He did go there for forty days - that he'd have neighbours. Because those caves weren't dug into the cliff face for no reason at all. They weren't dug in there so He could have ten caves a day. They were there to be used." So I embarked on this story about people at the time of Christ in caves, dealing with their various problems - cancer, barrenness, opposition to the Romans, etc. And I thought "Well I'll have one paragraph about Jesus, and that one paragraph will be there just to give you a historical context. I'll say...'And further along, but we didn't see him was a Nazarene called Jesus' - and that would be it." But I still remember the day that I wrote that. I started out on the paragraph, and by the end of the paragraph, He'd met Moussa the Devil figure, and by the end of the chapter - because it became a chapter - Jesus had carried out a kind of a miracle - or wasn't it a miracle? We're not sure - one of those things. And so Jesus had kind of elbowed His way into the story. I could no longer drop Him as a character, because he'd 'cured' the Devil. Jesus has cured the Devil. And that was a gift of the book, that wasn't anything I intended.

Q: One critic said of that - one religious writer said of that - "The grace of God was standing at your shoulder."

Crace: I think it was the Archbishop of Canterbury...

Q: (Chuckles)

Crace: ...who said that to me actually. And my reply was that it wasn't the grace of God standing at my shoulder - it was the goblin of storytelling. And I think that I was being a bit facetious, but I also mean that. Storytelling is very mischievous and can take you in all sorts of odd directions. And if I'd've resisted the goblin of storytelling I would've written a much duller, less interesting book. But of course, having found myself the author of a book about Christ, you then have two choices. You either say to yourself "Well I'm an atheist, and so I will turn that book into a North Korean style atheist tract," or "I will let the book breathe its own oxygen". And I've always decided to take the second of those two options. And the result is that here is a, a hard-nosed unforgiving atheist like I am, who won't give an inch on the scientific side of, of the existence of God or not, who wrote a book which as it turns out, underscores people's belief in God, rather than undermines it.

Q: Does that worry you, or please you?

Crace: It doesn't worry me, that's for sure, because I'm not hostile to people wanting narrative in their lives. And I understand that belief in religion and God is, is, is a comfort and an important comfort in a complex world. So it doesn't displease me.

Q: So in that sense, you don't stand with Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins or such polemicists?

Crace: No, I think where I, I differ from those two writers - and I'm a great admirer of both of them - particularly Richard Dawkins because of the light that he's shed on, on Darwinism. Where I, I differentiate from him I think is that I don't think he recognises the way in which a religious belief is a Darwinist development. I think it is a Darwinist development. I think before there were any explanations for the world, humankind with our level of consciousness and our ability to foresee death, had to come up with systems of dealing with it, in the way that no other creature has had to. And there has to be some explanation for why we are not rolled up in foetal positions all our lives, screaming for help, knowing that this finality is, is hurtling towards us. And so I think that religion...is almost a rational product of that dilemma.

Q: It's the, part of the argument of such polemicists to say that these narratives are now seen to be nonsense. We don't believe they were, actually happened. And therefore, those who believe in them are wrong. Now that doesn't seem to leave space - and I'm interested in your take on this - for things that are implied by religion. Concepts like beauty and love and compassion for others - where do you believe those come from?

Crace: Well the only reason we associate those with religion - or some religions, not all religions w...would have those claims attached to them - is 'cos we've allowed them to get away with it. This is another failing of the atheist tradition - we don't even have words for spirituality, or rapture, or transcendence. We have to use religious words in order to express them.

Q: Given your experience of the inadequacy of your atheism to answer your father's death, have you developed within yourself a new sense of atheism, a more muscular atheism, a more mystical atheism?

Crace: I think it's less muscular, I think it's a more sentimental atheism. I allow myself to glorify in the beauty of those things that we encounter in our three score years and ten. And it means that I've come to find pleasure in everything in the natural world - not just the pretty things. There are a lot of people that think that I take pleasure in disgust, because I describe things in my books, which are hard to contemplate. But the disgust I think, is the disgust that is being felt by the commentator, not by me the writer. I don't feel any disgust in rotting corpses, I don't feel any disgust in the natural world. If you think the natural world only comprises of rainbows and nightingales and daffodils, then most of the natural world is going to horrify you. But I find beauty in cowpats. Y'know, there is a particular kind of fly that only breeds in cowpats and, and, and I will go across and have a look at a cowpat, in order to see those flies which have interesting colours. I will go along a beach and I will see a dead crab, and I will pick it up and look at it - I'm not horrified by those things.

Q: Does that give you any explanation as to what happens when we die?

Crace: What happens when we die is that all of those cells of which we are comprised return 'back to the bank', as it were. And that's comforting in a way. It's not a comfort we're gonna be able to feel, because it's finished for us. But it's a truth that we can think about now and feel that, that it's not pointless being in this world.

Q: Being Dead - let's talk about Being Dead - which followed was the, the next novel after Quarantine. Two people murdered on a beach whose bodies are left to rot - and the decomposition is described graphically, and you keep coming back, and they're in a worse state of decay.

Crace: But with beauty, I hope.

Q: Well it's very lyrical prose, but you don't feel that they themselves, if you can objectify them out of the novel, would've been easy to look at.

Crace: They're not easy to look at, because we are only squeamish about human bodies. But you know, you go along down to any beach and you will see kids running along with buckets, and they're filling their buckets with dead bodies - shells and with crabs. So there's a continuum of disgust that we feel. And the comfort that I was trying to provide by describing human bodies without any squeamishness, was to try and persuade the reader to think of a dead body in the same way that they think of a dead crab or they think of a dead crustacean. Because after all, that's the truth of the matter - that is of the, the seven million is it, creatures in the universe - the only one that feels self-conscious about its fellows who are dead is humankind.

Q: It is a terrible murder of two people who have been very closely married for a long time, and there's no explanation - we never know why it was done, or by whom. But you are seeking in that book to try to find a reason for living, and what is the meaning of life.

Crace: Yes.

Q: How would you explain it?

Crace: This is the sentimental part of me. Here we have two characters...

Q: 'Sentimental' is often used as a pejorative. I take it you're not using it in a pejorative sense?

Crace: Well I am, in order to kind of give myself a little bit of a gloss. I'm being a bit self-apologetic by calling it 'sentimental'. But I do recognise it as not being as intellectually v...vigorous as I might want it to be. The sentimental part is that here we have a couple who've been married for thirty years. And we know that even though the passion's gone, that they must be deeply fond of each other. And there, there's a sort of an 'old brewed' fondness, that anyone that's been married for a long time will know about. And when they die, something survives - that's the sentimental part. Their love survives. Now you can argue that, 'How can you say their love survives? Love dies when you die.' But I've been talking earlier today about my father's death - he died in 1979 - but I've been talking about him with love. I don't expect my children to talk about their grandfather with love. They never met him, but there is love and it does survive for a short amount of time. And it's that kind of sentimentality that I'm owning up to.

Q: It's Philip Larkin isn't it? What is, what remains of us is love.

Crace: Yes, yes.

Q: But isn't that to say 'And that is God'?

Crace: No.

Q: The, the religious would say 'That is God. God is love is one of the great texts.'

Crace: Yes, but they would say that now, because they're trying to sort of shift the ground under our feet...

Q: Well it's in the Bible.

Crace: It might be in the Bible - there's so many other things about the Bible that the, the key thing about God is that it suggests the universe is an outside job. Whereas my position clearly is, is that it's entirely an inside job, and that what love we feel is a product of our consciousness. And the fact that it doesn't survive for very long after we die is a product of generation, as it were. No, I don't believe in any, anything outside of ourselves.

Q: Do you believe in having set aside the concept of God for yourself that the concept itself is going through cultural change, in that clearly, people don't believe - or many of them don't - that there's a man in the sky with a white beard.

Crace: Mm

Q: They would say that, that's not what they mean by God. And sometimes, speaking to scientists who are Christian, they speak about something that is almost a sort of self-generated, inner concept that they have decided to designate as God.

Crace: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

Q: As a man of words, are you aware of this word shifting?

Crace: I have no respect for that at all. They're, they're just ceding territory - they're giving up ground - they know they're losing out. Because the narratives of natural history and the narratives of science, are strengthening all the time. More and more is being understood day by day. We know that if in the, the fourteenth century you'd gone to the top of a hill with a, a believer a, a, a vicar for example, and the vicar had said 'D'you hear the thunder? That's God expressing His disdain and He's upset about our sins, or 'that's God having indigestion', we could believe that, because there were no other explanations. But there are so many explanations these days, and an increasing number of explanations that a belief in, in a God of any kind to me seems child-like. Not only does it seem child-like, it seems to me to be missing out on the great narratives of science.

Q: What about the future of the human race then? Because that's one of the great topics that both...

Crace: Mmm

Q: ...religious people and you address in your...

Crace: Yes

Q: ...in your book. 'The Pest House' is a, about a dystopian future where really, America is destroyed and completely in disarray, and people are struggling to survive against each other, and in conflict, one group with another. Horrendous things happen, and there are two people who become a bulwark for each other. You're not hopeful of the future?

Crace: I am hopeful for the future! I'm a real pessimist - real optimist (laughs) - that's not a slip of the tongue I promise. I'm an optimist - but what is the use of optimism found in a field of daisies? What's the use of optimism about death if, if the optimism is based on the promise that you're going to go to Heaven for eternity? It's false optimism. The best kind of optimism is one found in dark places, and this is something which I, I know people misunderstand about me. They think that I'm a dark person and a dark writer. Actually, I'm immensely cheerful and I'm immensely optimistic, because I am able to find narratives of optimism and comfort in the darkest of places. So in the same way that in 'Being Dead' I wrote about death by looking death right 'in the flesh' - in the rotting flesh - in the same way I looked at the future of the western world by analysing it at its lowest. And if you read the book I think it's clear that the book is optimistic. At the end of the book, the American Dream is given back to the characters. They are heading off West, like those Shetl Jews in the 19th century, and the, and the, the people fleeing the, the potato famine from Ireland. They are seeking 'the other coast' - their acre of land.

Q: Could you have imagined when you spoke of your religion with your father - his atheism and your atheism - that religion would've re-emerged into the place it now holds in our daily life, national security and international affairs? And...

Crace: No...

Q: ...what explains that?

Crace: I know, I'm baffled by that, because the logic of the thing is that there's no, as I said earlier, there's no territory left for religion to occupy with any self-esteem. There are cultural reasons as well why people would hang onto their religions. I mean the same way that you hang onto your diet and you hang onto your dress code if you, if you're an immigrant...

Q: Well they're not just hanging on, they're converting and they're...

Crace: Yes

Q: ...radicalising, rejuvenating.

Crace: Yes

Q: I mean there's a great swathe of movements in both the West and the East...

Crace: Yes

Q: ... And it's socially surprising isn't it?

Crace: It is absolutely surprising and, and particularly as it is taking such a virulent and sometimes poisonous form at the moment. I think that's about politics, and I guess I don't mind people believing in God until governmental systems are based on something like that. God does not exist, I think it's a myth. I think that the Trojan Horse to make you believe in it is, is narrative and stories. So of course I would h...have sympathy with that. But as soon as you start basing political activities and, and, and international relationships on those false narratives, then I think things start going wrong.

Q: You mentioned politics a moment ago, and I wonder - you spoke earlier too of your father's atheism being allied to his politics, which was basically anti-capitalist.

Crace: Yes

Q: What d'you think has happened to the ethic that underlies so much of our consuming society? I mean we're just going through Christmas...

Crace: Yes

Q: ...with its enormous, almost secular celebration of non-Christian activities. I mean of course there's the Christian issue at the heart of it, but what d'you make of the whole capitalist part of Christmas?

Crace: I plead guilty to playing my part. It doesn't offend me as much as it might a sincere Christian, because it's not my set of beliefs that, that are being offended. I, I know that I'm, I'm supposed to admit to more unease than I recognise now, than I'm aware of. I'm not actually uneasy about Christmas. I like Christmas - I like family - I'm a family man, right? So there's the great excuse. I'm not excessive when Christmas comes along, and I'm not self-conscious about it. I know it for what it is. We've never been to church on Christmas day, we've never...the most we might do is listen to a service of carols that my wife will sing along to, but I won't. I don't feel puritanical about Christmas, that's the truth of the matter.

Q: But given what you've just said, isn't there, there a recognition of ritual, and even a pleasure being taken by you - a sworn atheist - in the rituals of a religion, to which you don't owe allegiance, but which nonetheless nourish something in your humanity?

Crace: Yes I recognise that, but I felt exactly the same when I lived in the Sudan and it would, I would go to the Eid, the end of Ramadan. In fact I've fasted in Ramadan when I lived in the Sudan, and you would, and you would go to pilgrimage parties, and I've been in many parts of the world and I've taken part in Jewish rituals as well. These rituals aren't bad rituals - they've been brewed over the Millennia. They're fine-tuned, and there's a lot to be taken out of them - the buildings are beautiful - mosques are wonderful, churches are interesting, synagogues are full of beautiful voices and, and interesting ideas - of course. So I'm not closed to that, I just don't buy into the 'big fella with the white beard'.

Q: But you enjoy Christmas?

Crace: You can't spoil that for me.

Q: Jim Crace, thank you very much.

Crace: Thank you.

© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to:

BBC Religion & Ethics


Catalogue of the Literary Archive of Jim Crace

In 2008 the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired the literary archive of Jim Crace. The archive contains manuscripts, notes and outlines for works, reviews, trade journals, radio plays, art work, recordings, press clippings, juvenilia, correspondence and the original proposal for two novels currently in progress.

Inventory conducted by John W. Wronoski - Literary Archives.

Catalogued by John W. Wronoski and Don Lindgren




Books: Material related to the published books

Short Works (Essays & Short Stories)


Interviews / Press clippings, etc


Works of others

Additional material (2005-2008)






9436 pages of mostly corrected typescript, 2316 pages of page proofs, 858 pages of holograph and typescript notes, and 1870 pages of other related materials. 14,480 pages total.


An African Casebook (1973)

61 pages total.


·         Jim Crace {Grace} writer and compiler.

An African Casebook: For the Middle Years, BBC Radio Autumn 1973.

1973. Sixteen page, quarto sized, color book, written by Crace (and his earliest appearance in book form). 16 pages.


·         Plane tickets.

1969-1972. Plane tickets from Crace's travels in Africa, etc.  Approximately 20 items.


·         Africa travel documents.

1969-72. Various official documents pertaining to Crace's time in Africa and elsewhere, including driver's licenses, youth hostel membership cards, visas, student IDs, etc. Approximately 25 pieces.



Continent (1986)

307 pages of corrected and uncorrected typescript,  37 pages of notes, and 240 pages of press clippings.


·         Continent - typescript.

Computer print-outs, some with holograaph corrections or revisions, of fragments of sections of Continent, approximately 85 pages.


·         Continent – typescript..

“On Heat."

Typescript with holograph revisions and corrections, 23 pages.


·         Continent – typescript..


Typescript draft with holograph revisions and corrections, 14 pages, accompanied by one page of holograph notes.


·         Continent -typescript.

"Talking Skull."

Typescript, 13 pages.; photocopied typescript with a few minor holograph corrections, 13 pages; two fragments, typescripts with holograph revisions and corrections, 8 pages each. Approximately 42 pages.


·         Continent – typescript.

"The World with one Eye Shut."

Three typescripts, two with holograph corrections and revisions, two 18 pages, the third 16 pages. 52 pages in all.


·         Continent – typescript.

Photocopied typescript with numerous editorial marks and comments as well as Crace's corrections, revisions and replies. Approximately 30 pages.


·         Continent – typescript.


Carbon typescript, 27 pages.


·         Continent – typescript.

"The End of the World."

Typescript with holograph revisions and corrections, 12 pages.


·         Continent - typescript..

"Sins and Virtues."

Typescript with holograph revisions and corrections, 10 pages; carbon typescript with a few minor holograph corrections, 13 pages. 23 pages total.


·         Continent - notebook.

Small octavo spiral-bound notebook containing preliminary notes and research for "Atlantis."  9 pages.


·         Continent – notes.

Miscellaneous holograph notes for Continent. Approximately 18 pages.


·         Continent – notes..

"Post-its" bearing holograph notes pertaining to Continent. Approximately 10 pages.


·         Continent -  3 volumes bound press clippings.

1986. Three binders with original and photocopy press clippings, some with holograph notes. Approximately 150 pages.


·         Continent - press clipping translated into Italian.

1986. Comb-bound photocopies of translations of reviews into Italian, for 'The Guardian Fiction 1986'. Approximately 30 pages.


·         Continent - press clippings.

1986. Manila envelope with numerous press clipping and photocopies. Approximately 60 pages.




The Gift of Stones (1988)

398 pages of typescript, 112 pages of notes, 180 pages of press clippings, and 276 pages of works by others about this novel.


·         The Gift of Stones - typescript.

Typescript, dot matrix printed, in a red and black binder, with a few holograph corrections to early pages and a post it note with holgoraph notes laid in. 194 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones - typescript.

1987-88. Original typescript, with holograph copy editing marks throughout by an editor, and a few holograph comments by the author. 194 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones -  notebook of early ideas.

1986-7. Quarto sized notebook, with original manuscript notes toward The Gift of Stones. Approximately 30 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones - notes and research.

Approximately 6 pages of holograph notes on various research subjects and 6 pages of typescript notes. With approximately 40 pages of clippings and offprints related to prehistoric life and animal and human behavior. 52 pages total.


·         The Gift of Stones - notes.

1986-87. Small notepad, with original manuscript notes toward The Gift of Stones, including historical observations, word lists, etc. Approximately 30 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones - press clippings.

1988. Bound volume of press clippings. Includes photo copies of TLS from John Fowles, John Hawkes, Frederick Busch, Charles Johnson and  Frank Kermode. Approximatey 50 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones - press and publicity folder.

1988. Blue folder with original and photocopy press clippings, a few with holograph notes. Approximately 60 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones -  US press clippings.

Small file of press and publicity clippings. Approximately 40 pages.


·         The Gift of Stones -  UK & Australia press clippings.

c. 1987. Group of press clippings realted to The Gift of Stones, all from the UK and Australia. Approximately 30 pages,.


·         Bruce, Roger.

The Gift of Stones [String Quartet] - original manuscript.

n.d. Original manuscript, with holograph corrections, signed. 6 pages.


·         Sharp, Kim.

The Gift of Stones - screenplay.

1996. Original typescript, in blue post binding. With a one page TLS from the translator. Two copies, 135 pages each. 270 pages.



Arcadia (1992)

1882 pages of corrected typescript, 294 pages of notes, and 115 pages of press clippings. 2291 pages total.


·         Arcadia, "City Book, first full draft" – typescript.

Computer print-out with holograph corrections and revisions, titled The Paradise of Termites, 438 pages.


·         Arcadia, "Final Edited Version" - typescript.

1991-2. Original typescript, with moderate to heavy holograph corrections throughout. With holograph label, "Final Edited Version." 500 pages.


·         Arcadia – typescript fragments.

Typescript fragments with holograph revisions, approx. 85 pages.


·         Arcadia - typescript.

Computer print-out with some holograph corrections, 519 pages.


·         Arcadia - page proofs.

Original page proof, with modest holograph corrections throughout. With holograph label, "Author's Marked Copy."  Approximately 340 pages.


·         Arcadia - original proposal.

c. 1990-1. Typescript of original proposal for Arcadia (called here 'The City Novel'), and for Quarantine. 4 pages total.


·         Arcadia -  notebook.

Spiral-bound notebook containing early holograph notes and drafts, approximately 65 pages.


·         Arcadia - notes.

Small octavo notebook containing holograph notes. 225 pages.


·         Arcadia - notes.

Holograph and typescript notes and drafts. Approximately 65 pages.


·         Arcadia -  press clippings.

Small file of press and publicity clippings, with some small promotional brochures and postcards.  Approximately 100 pages.


·         Arcadia -  US press clippings.

Small file of approximately 15 pages.





Signals of Distress (1994)

Approximately 2075 pages of typescript and page proof, 120 pages of notes and outlines, and 270 pages of press clippings.


·         Signals of Distress, "Working Parts" typescripts.

Large box of original typescript, various sections in various drafts. With modest to moderate holograph corrections throughout. Approximately 1800 pages.


·         Signals of Distress -  page proof.

c. 1993. Page proof, labelled "Marked Proof", with a few holograph corrections and revisions, and a few others in the photocopy. 275 pages.


·         Signals of Distress -  notebook of early ideas.

1991. Large quarto, spiral bound notebook, with original manuscript notes toward Signals of Distress, here provisionally titled, "Driftwod". Approximately 56 pages.


·         Signals of Distress - notebook with early ideas.

c. 1992. Small duodecimo spiral notebook, with original manuscript notes regarding vocabulary, characters and the like. Approximately 18 pages.


·         Signals of Distress - early notebook of ideas.

c. 1992. Small octavo-sized notebook, with original manuscript notes, studies and sketches, crossed out later as Crace used or rejected them in the novel. Approximately 40 pages.


·         Signals of Distress -  fragment of text on driftwood.

c.1992-94. Fragment of text, holograph on small piece of drift wood, 3 cm x 12 cm. A description of seaweed colours.


·         Signals of Distress - artwork.

1993. Small group of color photocopies of draft designs for cover artwork. Approximately 6 pages.


·         Signals of Distress - notes.

"Computer Schedule" - word count and outline.

Original manuscript word count and outline. 4 pages total.


·         Signals of Distress -  rewrite schedule.

1994. Original manuscript notes, labelled "rewrite schedule". 2 pages.


·         Signals of Distress – press clippings.

1994. Manila envelope with original ckippings for Signals. Approximately 40 pages.


·         Signals of Distress -  UK & Australia press clippings.

1994. Group of original and photocopy press clippings. Approximately 45 pages.


·         Signals of Distress - press clippings.

1994-5. Small file of press clippings, approximately 35 pages.


·         Signals of Distress  - press clippings.

1996. Brown manila folder of press clippings, reviews, etc. Approiximately 150 pages.


·         Hansen, Brigitte.

Memoire de Traduction Litteraire. Pavillons de Detresse - typescript.

1996. Photocopy typescript, with holograph corrections. Approximately 70 pages.



Quarantine (1997)

Approximately 1330 pages of corrected and uncorrected typescript, 151 pages of notes, 70 photos and 42 pages of other materials.


·         Quarantine, "Submitted Version” – typescript.

1996. Original typescript, clean, with holograph note on first page, "Submitted version 10 Nov 1996". 239 pages.


·         Quarantine, "Penultimate Version” typescript.

1996. Orignal typescript, with a few holograph corrections. Labelled in Crace's hand, "Penultimate Version for editing - Oct. 96". 133 pages.


·         Quarantine, "Annotated Full Copy" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections throughout. Approximately 50 pages.


·         Quarantine - various draft typescript sections.

1996. Various original typescript sections, with holgoraph corrections and revisions throughout. With typescript and manuscript pages of notes for many sections. Approximately 140 pages.


·         Quarantine, "Agent's Copy" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, labelled in Crace's hand "Agent's Copy for comments, Edited 6/11/96". 160 pages.


·         Quarantine, "Line Edited Version" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, with modest holograph corrections. 239 pages.


·         Quarantine, "Annotated Working Copy" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, with moderate to heavy holograph corrections throughout. Approximately 80 pages.


·         Quarantine,  "Q5" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, clean. With holograph label "Q5 - print out 11/10/96". Two copies. Approximately 40 pages total.


·         Quarantine, "Q6" - typescript.

1996. Original typescript, clean. With holograph label "Q6 24/10/96". Approximately 20 pages.


·         Quarantine - page proofs.

1997. Original page proofs, clean. 256 pages.


·         Quarantine - early draft notebook.

1996. Quarto-sized notebook, with manuscript notes. 40 pages.


·         Quarantine - notebook for Israel trip.

c. 1996. Small orange notebook, with original manuscript notes from a trip to Israel to research Quarantine. With some notes related to a trip to Tasmania. Approximately 60 pages.


·         Quarantine - original outline and proposal.

Original typescripts of synopsis and proposals for the book, and for individual chapters. Approximately 8 pages.


·         Quarantine - notes and research.

1996. Original typescript, with modest holograph corrections, and a few pages manuscript notes.  With some clippings. Approximately 20 pages.


·         Quarantine - notes on fasting.

1996. Research on fasting, some manuscript notes (5 pages), with offprints. Approximately 35 pages.


·         Quarantine - early draft notes

1996. Typescripts of early draft outlines and ideas for Quarantine (approximately 20 pages), with extensive holograph corrections and revisions. With approximately 8 pages manuscript notes laid-in. 28 pages total.


·         Quarantine - research photographs.

1996. Envelope of color photographs of the Judean desert. Approximately 70 photos.


·         Quarantine - publisher's press materials

Group of printed materials, produced by the publisher's for Quarantine, with material related to the Book Prize Short List. Approximately 30 pages total.


·         Quarantine -  Bomb Interview.

2000. Transcription of interview with Bomb magazine, with holograph corrections and revisions by Crace throughout. With a one page faxed TLS to Crace. 12 pages total.



Being Dead (1999)

610 pages of corrected typescript, 336 pages of typescript of a screenplay.


·         Being Dead - typescripts.

1998. Multiple draft typescripts, divided into sections, with moderate to heavy holograph corrections and revisions. With typescript notes for each section, with heavy holograph corrections and notes. Many sections are dated by hand one the first page. With approximately 20 pages of holograph notes laid-in as well. Approximately 400 pages.


·         Being Dead - page proofs.

1999. Original page proofs, with minor holograph corrections. 210 pages.


·         Being Dead - press clippings.

c. 2000. Comb bound photocopies of press clippings, assembled to aid in acquiring a film project. Approximately 10 pages.


·         Meyers, John.

Being Dead - screenplay.

2003. Photocopy typescript, with heavy holograph corrections to first three or four pages. Approximately 100 pages.


·         Meyers, John.

Being Dead -  screenplay.

2002. Typescript, in black stiff paper binding. 118 pages.


·         Meyers, John.

Being Dead - screenplay

2002. Original typescript, clean. 118 pages.



Six / Genesis (2003)

1442 pages of corrected typescript, 475 pages of page proofs, 70 pages of notes and approximately 140 pages of press clippings and related correspondence.


·         Six / Genesis - typescripts.

2002. Various typescripts of several sections of Genesis/Six, some with moderate holograph corrections. Approximately 1200 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis -  typescript.

2003. Original typescript, with a few holograph corrections throughout. 242 pages.


·         Six/ Genesis -  page proofs.

2003. Original page proofs, clean. 244 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis - page proofs.

2003. Set of original page proofs, clean. 220 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis -  partial corrected proofs.

2003. One page TLS from editor, with ten pages of corrected proofs. 11 pages total.


·         Six / Genesis - notes and research.

2000-1. Original manuscript and typescript notes. Page outlines, chapter ideas, etc. Approximately 35 pages.


·         Six / Genesis -early draft notebook.

2000-2001. Quarto-sized green notebook, with manuscript draft notes. Approximately 35 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis -  "data".

2003. Typescript, with holograph notes, describing characters, topgography, etc. 2 pages.


·         Six / Genesis -  cover art drafts.

2003. Color printouts of various draft cover art designs. Approximately 8 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis -  publisher correspondence.

2003. 4 TLS, 4 emails regarding Six/Genesis. Approximately 12 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis -  press and publicity clippings.

2003-4. Two-inch thick file of press and publicity clippings -  mostly from the US & UK. Approximately 120 pages.


·         Six /  Genesis  - French press clippings.

2005. Approximately 15 pages.



The Devil's Larder (2001)

592 pages of corrected typescript, 1841 pages of page proof, 64 pages of notes and 320 pages of press clippings.


·         The Devil's Larder, "Penultimate Edit"  - typescript.

2000. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections. Approximately 65 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - typescript.

2001. Original typescript, with moderate to heavy holograph corrections. 221 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - typescript.

2001. Original typescript, with moderate to heavy holograph corrections throughout. 221 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - typescript.

2001. Typescript drafts, some with corrections or revisions (approximately 75 pages), accompanied by approximately 10 pages holograph notes. 85 pages total.


·         The Devil's Larder - master proof.

2001. Original page proof, labelled "Master Proof", with one or two minor holgoraph corrections. With a one page TLS from Crace's editor at FSG, Aodaoin O Floinn. 167 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - first pass page proofs.

2001. Original page proofs, labelled "Rough Pages", with a few holograph corections. With a one page TLS from John Glusman, executive Editor at FSG. 165 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - page proof.

Page proof. 221 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - page proofs.

2000. Typescript of various sections, with a few holograph corrections. Approximately 40 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - page proofs.

2001. Original page proofs, clean. With a one page TLS from Penguin. 221 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder -  notes.

2000. Holograph notes, removed from an octavo spiral-bound notebook, 64 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - program draft for theatrical presentation.

2005. Color printout of 8 page program for a dramatic presentation of the work by the Gridiron Theater Company, Edinburgh.


·         Devil's Larder - press clippings.

1996-2003. Large black file box, labelled "Clippings, 1996 - " but containing mostly clippings about The Devil's Larder. Approximately 200 pages.


·         The Devil's Larder - "La Dispensa del Diavolo" press clippings.

2004. Comb-bound photocopies of Italian press clippings. Approximately 120 pages.



Pesthouse (2005)

800 pages of corrected and uncorrected typescript, and approximately 80 pages of notes.


·         Pesthouse - typescripts.

2005. Various typescripts of various sections of this work in progress, some sections with moderate holograph corrections or revisisions. Approximately 800 pages.


·         Pesthouse - original notebook.

2004. Quarto-size red notebook, with manuscript notes, wth heavy revision throughout. Approximately 45 pages.


·         Pesthouse - preliminary notes.

2004-5. Original manuscript and typescript notes, with heavy holograph corrections in preparation for Pesthouse. Approximately 35 pages.



Two Unfinished/Unpublished Novels (2005)


·         Proposal for Two Novels -  typescript.

2005. Original draft proposals for two novels: The Finalist, and Archipelago. Two copies, in different drafts. 6 pages total.





Approximately 1670 pages of typescript, and 460 pages of printed publication appearances.



Approximately 588 pages of typescript, 460 pages of printed publication appearances. 1048 pages total.


·         "Aberfan: Afterthought" - original publication.

1966. Essay, published in Spectrum, no. 1, Autumn 1966. 2 pages.


·         “For Jack's Birthday” - transcripts.

1972. Original typescript, with a few light holograph corrections. With a second draft typescript. 10 pages total.


·         “One American Incident” - typescript

1972. Original typescript, with a few minor holographic corrections. 5 pages.


·         “The New Dealers” - typescript.

1973. Original typescript, with a few minor holgoraph corrections. 9 pages.


·         Pula” - typescripts.

1973. Original typescript, clean. With another draft typescript. 14 pages total.


·         London's Hidden Homeless” - typescript.

1974. Original typescript, with a few holograph corrections. 6 pages.


·         Group of essays.

c. 1970's - early 1980's. Small file of original typescripts, some with minor holograph corrections. Twelve essays in all, approximately 40 pages.


·         “Low Paid Workers” - typescript.

1981. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections. With a one page TLS from the Daily Telegraph regading publication. 6 pages.


·         “The Law of the Sea” - typescript.

1982. Original typescript, clean. 8 pages.


·         “The Forgotten Voyage” - typescript.

1982. Original typescript, with moderate holgoraph corrections. 6 pages.


·         “MSV Tharos”- typescript.

1981. Original typescript, 7 pages.


·         “Travel essays. Mauritius.”

c. 1994-96. Small file of draft typescript, with travel essays, various states, some with holograph corrections. Approximately 40 pages.


·         “Simple Things: Scissors” - typescript.

2002. Original typescript, with minor holograph corrections. With a 6 page TLS correspondence between Crace and an editor at Conde Nast. Approximately 35 pages.


·         “Lyonesse: the Lost Kingdom” - typescript.

N.d. Original typescript. 8 pages.


·         Mauritius” - typescript.

N.d. Original typescript, clean. 6 pages.


·         “Creatures of Mystery” - typescripts.

n.d.. Original typescripts for four essays in this series. 32 pages total.


·         “Cruising the Canal du Midi” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with moderate holograph revisions. 6 pages.


·         France & Spain” - typescript.

n.d. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections. 5 pages.


·         Chernobyl and Wales” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with moderate holograph revisions. 21 pages.


·         “A Perfect Spy” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 6 pages.


·         “Cruising the Fjords” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with a few modest holograph corrections. 5 pages.


·         “Assembly of Elegance” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with a few moderae holgoraph corrections. 7 pages.


·         “Second Blitz of Coventry” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with a few minor holograph corrections. 5 pages.


·         “World Population” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with modest holograph corrections throughout.


·         “Ken Campbell” - typescript.

n.d. Original typescripts, clean. 7 pages.


·         “Tony Fahey” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript with heavy holograph correction. 9 pages.


·         “The Liar's Trilogy” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 9 pages.


·         “David Plastow” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 5 pages.


·         “Jimmy Hill” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with a few holograph corrections. 9 pages.


·         “Broadwater Farm” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 21 pages.


·         “The Mayor of Birmingham” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections. 4 pages


·         “Shopping in Birmingham” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 4 pages.


·         Corsica” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 6 pages.


·         Crete” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 4 pages.


·         Yugoslavia” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, with moderate holgoraph corrections throughout.


·         “Yevtushenko” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 10 pages.


·         Journalism -  clippings of essays.

1976-1987. Eight notebooks, with clippings of essays published in various publications including TLS, Telegraph Sunday Magazine, The Fiction Magazine, Radio Times, Automobile Magazine, Illustrated London News, Cosmopolitan, NYTimes Book Review and others. Approximately 410 pages.


·         Articles, speeches, etc. – typescripts.

2003-2005. Computer print-outs of various interviews, articles and speeches, most with holograph comments by Crace regarding their date and purpose, approximately 75 pages.


·         Lectures – typescripts.

1995-2005. Typescripts with holograph additions and corrections for public lectures, approximately 125 pages.


·         Essay and Short stories - clippings.

Various dates. Large group of clippings and photocopies of essays and short stories. Approximately 60 pages.



Short Stories, Radio Plays & Poems

1082 pages of typescript.


·         “Three Sailors, Three Seas” – typescript.

c. 1970's. Original typescript poem, clean. 1 page.


·         “My Dad, Black Rock and Me” - typescript.

c. 1970's. Original typescript, with minor holgoraph corrections. One page.


·         “The Brogue Shoe” - typescript.

c. 1970's. Original typescript, clean. 4 pages.


·         “Dead Loss” -  typescript.

n.d. 1970's. Original typescript, printed on a variety of paper stocks. 11 pages.


·         Radio Plays and Radio journalism produced for the BBC and others.

1970's. 35 original typescripts, some with light holograph corrections or revisions. Radio plays for the BBC mostly. Titles include: “Inquiry,” “Peoples of the World,” “The Bird Has Flown,” “Along the Shore,” “On the Knocker,” “Dead Loss,” “Middling,” “Awareness of Industry” and others. Some plays in multiple drafts. Approximately 240 pages.


·         “Helter Skelter/Annie” - typescript.

c. 1970's. Original typescript, with heavy holograph corrections throughout. With second draft typescript, here titled "Annie".  14 pages total.


·         “Salateen” – typescript.

c. 1970's. Photocopy radio play, clean. 56 pages.


·         “Windows” – typescript.

c. 1970's. Original typescript, clean. 9 pages.


·         “Sportsman” - typescript.

1971. Original typescript, with moderate holograph corrections. With two additional typescripts, clean. 22 pages total.


·         “Refugee” - typescript.

1971. Original typescript, with modest holograph corrections. With four additional typescripts, most with holograph corrections and revision. With  a typescript of the story in dramatic form. And with 3 offprints of the printed story. 36 pages total.


·         Annie, California Plates” - typescripts.

1973. Original typescript, with heavy holograph corrections and revisions. With a second draft typescript. 20 pages total.


·         “Cross Country” - typescript.

1975. Original typescript, with heavy holograh corrections and revisions throughout. 13 pages total.


·         “Intact” - typescripts.

1975. Original typescript, with a few holograph revisions. With three additional varied typescript drafts. 64 pages total.


·         “A&N Ltd: Photocopying” - typescripts.

1976. Original typescript, with modest holograph corrections throughout. With four additional typescripts, two with heavy holograph corrections and the others with modest corrections. Approximately 90 pages.


·         “The Bird has Flown” - typescript.

1976. Four original typescripts (one with the title “Bent Eggs”), two with modest holograph corrections. Approximately 166 pages.


·         “A Coat of Many Colours” - typescript.

Various. Original typescript of radio play, with modest holgoraph corrections throughout. 84 pages. Two copies. With typescript production schedule. 171 pages total.


·         “Pycletius.”

1999. Small group of materials related to a literary hoax on the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Literature.


·         “Rough Sleepers” - various incomplete drafts.

Approximately 7 pages of holograph notes, and 40 pages of typescript, with modest holograph corrections throughout. An aborted attempt at a short story written for the Penguin 60th anniversary project. Approximately 47 pages total.


·         "One Alice Howells" typescript.

2001. Typescript of short story, written for a BBC show "Three Writers in Search of an Author". Approximately 20 pages.


·         “Too Young for Funerals” - typescript.

2002. Typescript, clean. This was a 'baton story' for the Guardian Hay Festival 2002, with Crace contributing the initial section, and other sections by Lesley Glaister, Maggie O'Farrell, Andrew Miller, Sebastian Barry, Emily Perkins, Howard Jacobsen and Michael Faber. All sections included here. With clippings of the original appearances in the Guardian. Approximately 12 pages typescript, and 12 pages clippings, 24 pages total.


·         “Too Young for Funerals” -  typescript.

2005. Typescript, with two minor holograph corrections. For publication in the Harvard Review. With a One page TLS from the editor. Three pages total.


·         “Former Glory” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript wth light holograph corrections. 4 pages.


·         “Thomas and Ruth” - typescript.

n.d.. Original typescript, clean. 5 pages.


·         “Gentle Giant” - typescript.

n.d. Original typescript, clean. 8 pages.


·         “Talking Skull” - typescript.

n.d. Photocopy typescript, 13 pages.


·         Group of short stories - typescripts.

Various dates. Group of original typescripts, some with minor holgoraph corrections. 4 stories, approximately 40 pages in all.




29 ALS, 49 pages total; 143 TLS, 167 pages total; 31 POS. 203 pieces, 247 pages total.


·         Correspondence 1969-72.

1969-1972. Approximately 15 TLS, 10 ALS from various people during his travels in Africa and Latin America.


·         Correspondence - 1997.

1997. Various correspondence, mostly TLS. Some regarding Quarantine. Approximately 18 pages


·         Correspondence -  2000-2005.

2000-2005. File of correspondence, almost all printed emails or faxes, pertaining to matters concerning the filming of Crace's books, approx. 65 pages.


·         Correspondence - Signals of Distress.

1994. Nine TLS, from various people including Crace, regarding publication of Signals of Distress. 11 pages total.


·         Abbas (Photographer, Magnum).

19969-. 4 ALS, 10 pages.; 10 TLS, 13 pages.  Some of the letters have small black-and-white photographs (15) with commentary attached. 23 pages total.


·         Aitken, Maria.

1999. TLS, 1 page.


·         Aslan, Reza.

n.d.. ALS, 2 pages.


·         Bailey, Paul.

1998. TLS, 1 page.


·         Buford, Bill.

1983-2000. 2 TLS, 2 pages.


·         Busch, Frederick.

One page fax.

1997. One page fax. A long laudatory response to Quarantine.


·         Busch, Frederick.

One page TLS

2003. One page TLS, regarding Genesis/Six. 1 page total.


·         Coe, Jonathan.

n.d.. PCS.


·         Conroy, Frank.

One page TLS.

1997. One page TLS regarding Quarantine, and the Writing Program at Iowa.


·         Coover, Robert.

2001. TLS,  one page.


·         Crace, Jim.

1969-1972. Letters to his parents during his travels in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  6 ALS, 17 pages; 21 TLS, 40 pages; 25 PCS.


·         Crace, Jim.

c. 1970. 2 TLS, 3 pages  to friends from Africa.


·         Crace, Mr. and Mrs.

1969-1972. 6 ALS, 8 pages.


·         Faber, Michael.

2002. TL (print-out of email), 2 pages.


·         Forster, Margaret.

n.d.. ALS, 2 pages.


·         Galloway, Janice.

1998. TLS, 1 page.


·         Larkin, Philip.

1983. TLS, 1 page.


·         Lodge, David.

1982. TLS, 1 page.


·         Lodge, David.

1986. PCS.


·         Lopez, Barry.

1999-2004. 2 TLS, 2 pages.


·         Myerson, Julie.

2000. 2 TLS, 2 pages; PCS.


·         Orme, Hazel.

One page ALS.

2003. One page ALS.


·         Pullinger, Kate.

1996. PCS.


·         Raban, Jonathan.

n.d.. ALS, 1 page.


·         Rushdie, Salman.

1990. TLS, 1 page.


·         Stoppard, Tom.

1983. PCS.


·         Swift, Graham.

1986-1997. TN; PCS.


·         Tennant, Emma.

n.d.. ANS.


·         Tristram, Claire.

2003. ALS, 2 pages.


·         Watson, Colin.

1977. TLS, 1 page.


·         Weldon, Tom.

2003. TLS, regarding Six, etc. 1 page.





Approximately 350 pages of clippings and interview transcripts, as well as 20 audio cassette recordings.


·         Interviews and audio recording so readings.

various. Cassette tapes of readings and interviews, 20 tapes in all.


·         Birmingham Festival of Readers and Writers.

1983. Small group of printed fliers, correspondence and press clippings related to this festival, which was started by Crace and a partner, and ran for 13 years.


·         Hay on Wye / Nestle Controversy.

2002. Correspondence. Approximately 40 pages.


·         Various clippings -  bound.

1993. Large bound volume of clippings and publicity items, including color prints of cover artworks for a variety of edtions of Crace's books. Approximately 100 pages.


·         Various press clippings reviews and interviews.

1997-98. File box with various clippings for reviews, interviews, etc. Approximately 200 pages.


·         Original graphic art.

c. 1973. 8 1/2" x 11" sheet.  Original graphic art for poster advertising "Second Great Candlemas Pagan Meeting."




Approximately 100 pages of school-era writings, early political activites, and youth related material. Also materials related to various awards, and a few pieces of original artwork by Crace. Approximately 140 pages total.




·         Three small maps of imaginary lands.

c. age 8. Three small hand-drawn maps of imaginary islands, one in color, and with a legend, indicating roads and railway lines. Approximately age 8.  3 pages total


·         Report Cards.

1955-61. Original school report card from Enfield  Grammar School and Worcesters Junior School, 21 in all.


·         Enfield Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

c. 1962. Small convolute of materials related to the Nuclear Disarmament movement, including a publication edited by Crace (and on whose cover he is included in a photo of a protest march). A second leaflet, also written by Crace is also included, as well as three mimeographed brochures issued by other groups on the same issue. Approximately 30 pages total.


·         English Lit. Essays. -  original manuscripts.

10 original manuscript high school era English lit. essays, signed. On subjects including D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, lyrical ballads, William Morris, and more. Approximately 70 pages.


·         Crace, Jim and Yates, Mic.

Comic strip.

c. 1964. 16" x 22".  Four-panel political comic strip.





·         Premio Antico Fattore Chianti Ruffino - original prize plaque.

1988. Original silver scroll plaque, with bronze medallion. In blue leather-covered box.


·         American Academy of Arts & Letters.

E.M. Forster Award - related papers.

1996. Small group of papers, including the announcement letter, various correspondence (8 pages), press clippings and various invitations and printed programs. 30 pages total.


·         University of Central England.


1999. Approximately 6 pages.


·         U of Central England in Birmingham..

Honorary Doctorate

2000. Materials related to this honorary doctorate, including  a three-page typescript of Crace's acceptance speech, three photographs, and Crace's introduction. With the original rolled diploma in a blue tube. 14 pages in all.


·         University of Birmingham.

Honorary Doctorate -  materials related to.

2002. Various materials, including Crace's original diploma, one color photograph, a one page ALS from Michael Butler, chair of the  Department of Humanities there, along with Butler's speech introducing Crace, as well as Crace's acceptance speech. Approximately 12 pages.





·         Original watercolors

1995-2005. 30 approx. 4" x 6" watercolors on stiff paper, mostly depicting sea-side scenes.


·         Two travel notebooks.

c. 1980. Two small octavo notebooks from his travels in Mauritius, approximately 50 pages each.





·         Constable, John & Aoyama, Hideaki.

Testing for Mathematical Lineation in Jim Crace's Qaurantine and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

2001. Draft typescript of a mathematical paper, with 7 pages of email correspondence outlining Crace's response and the author's reaction.


·         Rapaic, Gordana.

Narrative Structure and Technique of Jim Crace's Continent.

1996. Original computer printed typescript of a thesis. With a one page TLS. 84 pages in all.


·         Scaillet, Sylvie.

Salute the Liars, … Analysis of Jim Crace's The Gift of Stones.

1997. Bound typescript, clean, 99 pages.




Brief description of recent (2005-2008) additions to the Jim Crace archive, containing papers and publications not included in the inventory conducted by John W. Wronoski.



  • Personal appointment and day diaries 1990-2006, containing details of everything from events attended to books read.



  • Red and black bound notebook, containing hand-written notes in preparation of Quarantine.



  • Files containing all documents relating to newspaper and magazine articles:

The Sunday Times Magazine (my childhood birthplace and upbringing in Enfield, Mx.)

The Sunday Times Magazine (report on Cambodia/AIDS/malaria under wing of MSF medical team.)

The Guardian (Four week analysis of Quarantine for Guardian Book Club by Crace and Mullen)



  • The Pesthouse – all remaining research papers and photographs, working papers, edits, print-outs, proofs, reviews, not already included in Wronoski  inventory.



  • CD recordings plus written and published background to radio broadcasts: with Joan Bakewell, BBC Radio 3, “Belief”; with Michael Silverblatt, KCRW, 5.14.10; and with Diane Rehm, NPR Washington, 5.14.07



  • All documents and printed matter concerning publication by Nan Talese/Doubleday of spoof volume Useless America. Includes signed and numbered copy of this extremely rare volume – only seventy published.



  • Complete collection of published volumes in various US/UK editions, plus translations into 26 languages. Includes anthologies, short-story collections and commercial audio recordings.



  • Documents relating to James Michener Residency Award, Austin, Texas 2008.



  • Critical works: by Susan Balee (Hudson Review, plus manuscripts); Philip Tew’s monograph Jim Crace – Contemporary British Novelists, Manchester University Press, 2007



  • Typescripts for various Q&As for on-line and printed magazines and for other literary researchers.



  • Various letters and emails, including correspondence with writers, including Rose Tremain, David Lodge. Jonathan Raban, Colm Toibin, John Dalton, Julie Myerson and Roy Fisher. In addition, there is a large file of emails with Austin, Tx, novelist, James Hynes.



  • Ring-bound, 25 page water-colour sketchbook of landscapes and seascapes on Isles of Scilly, summer 2007. More than 30 original paintings, plus several loose, unbound water colours.



  • Early notes, hand-corrected pages, working drafts, background documents, etc, for novel with contract title The Finalist and working title Heroes.



  • Plus – an entire and comprehensive collection of papers, typescripts, reviews, correspondence, personal  records, relating to years  2005-2008