The English Soil Society – by Tim Nickels
My 20th real-time review
posted Wednesday, 6 May 2009
The English Soil Society
by Tim Nickels
Elastic Press 2005
Another ‘real-time’ book review by DF Lewis. Previous ‘real-time’ reviews are linked from here:-
“What agency had slid inside Carlo Frendly’s studied anonymity?”
This is like a birth of something on the cusp of something else. An entertaining story of a pre-Credit Crunch ‘Madoff’ turned do-gooder. Really.
By dint of God? One wonders. Perhaps we shall find out as we read this book. It is a satirical gathering of single letters, that form in and out of meaning – as well as being sent in the post. This is the sort of style: “His singlets could re-salinate the North Sea”. Well, I live on the North Sea coast. I now hope to invest my critical time, to draw all the singlets together into pluralets, to pioneer discovering the hidden gestalt that is this book — not only by finding ‘leit-motifs’ in the stories where there are indeed these ‘leit-motifs’ to find – but also, more importantly, I feel, to find other ‘leit-motifs’ unnoticed by previous readers or by the author himself or even to find ‘leit-motifs’ where there are no ‘leit-motifs’ to find at all.
Tim Nickels’ story ‘England and Nowhere’ appeared in an edition of ‘Nemonymous’ (Zencore 2007), a story that was then chosen to appear in ‘Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror’. He has a story due to appear in the next issue of ‘Nemonymous’ (Cern Zoo 2009). (This review of ‘maybe’ was posted here on 6 May 09)
Tim Nickels is the only writer I know who would use ‘umbilical’ as a verb.
If I interpret the ending correctly, this is one of the most devastating stories I’ve ever read. But up to that point it’s an entertaining whimsy of a mixed-person BTCV holiday with strange airbabies who think they are human and do human jobs and fly about like birds or metaphors of themselves – or are just there simply to make the story interesting (what more worthwhile job could there possibly be?). Or is it the humans themselves who have some doubt about their own humanity? And can tractors give birth? There is a “shingle beach” and a sentence that goes like this: “He pronounced the word like a dead body.”
This story goosed me.
[Cf. the letters in ‘maybe’ with the airbabies in ‘Airbabies’.] (6 May 09 – 3 hours later)
“Blizzards rushed across the earth like frenzied polar bears scattering their pure white fragments.”
This is a substantial, almost religious, well, yes, religious, fable, that should be on everybody’s reading list. From the airbabies we now meet the (more substantial?) mountain-man (a concept proving that ‘magic fiction’ actually exists and actually existed, on the evidence, in 1990, when this story is said to have been first published) as made believable by a carefully crafted symbiosis of microcosm and macrocosm: a fantasy/alternate-world where duplications range from miracles to photographs. Another scattering of morals, or rather the initial sightings of the yet barely grasped tail of morality that shoots across the sky of Nickelslore … a tail inferred to shoot further into this book’s reading of me in times ahead…
Winter, is it only bearable by thought of the Summer inductively contained within its future, even if the Winter has not yet reached its coldest point? Only ‘maybe’. Never just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In any event, the question is one for our times today as it was for each of our memories’ alternate world of 1990 that we now know contained its own alternate world, i.e. this story itself.
“The scene was redolent of destiny; of a powerful memory blasted backwards from the future.” (7 May 09)
This by now memorable prose poem of synaesthesia makes Wagnerian opera seem like Chamber Music.
If puddles give birth to puddlesters and rails to railcrawlers, can air give birth to airbabies? One needs to address such questions if one believes words can be carbon-dated. But if I continue freewheeling these Variations on a Nickels’ Theme in ‘Hearing Colour’, my comments are in danger of becoming larger than life. Or louder? Certainly longer than this prose poem. I’d then be scolded by ‘deafening lipstick’. Or scalded? (7 May 09 – 2 hours later)
A Million Toledo Blades
This appears to be one crazy premonition (in 1995 when this story appears to have been first published) of the now forgotten (in 2009) Millennium Bug (or loads of these bugs like airbabies or insects creating the letters and thus the words even as we read them?) – told in an incantatory patchwork of dialogue and Dos Passos reportage (in a Punch & Judy Show or experimentation of homing in on a theme by a mal-functioning literary radar?). Hmmm. Not good memories of Toledo for me, in any event. My wife had a nasty fall on a pavement slab when there on holiday with me, gashing her leg. Accidental cuts are perhaps just the easiest, most humane way of beginning to escape from one’s body…?
“air-rippling hills – hunting butterflies…” (7 may 09 – another 3 hours later)
“… benign anonymity. / Anonymous that is, save for a millinery tradition of seemingly significant if baffling singularity.”
Here we catch up obliquely-satirically with the ‘duplicates’ in ‘Colder Still’ – a story of a land called Twohatta where people wear two hats simultaneously. I’m sure there is a sump somewhere that underpins such hilarious stories by Tim Nickels, Rhys Hughes, D. Harlan Wilson et al. But here we have a poignancy at the end that brings ‘S’ into a different league: “Shooting stars: silent, brief, gone before they were there. So otherly.” A poignancy enhanced to this degree by the context of this book so far. Then brought down to earth with an abrupt bump in the last two telling lines, a bump enhanced by the previous enhancement of poignancy – bathos and pathos enhanced mutually perhaps ad infinitum, ad absurdum… But is there anyone out there who can tell me why this story is called ‘S’? (8 May 09)
The Dressing Floors
“It is not a goose”. It is a story of a clothes synaesthesia (if one can imagine such a condition!). It is also Alice meets the Burrowers meets the airbabies or, perhaps, water-babies. It is a ballet of words and images … swishes of layered crinolines and dressing-gowns like a million blades that are so gossamer thin they whicker and snicker pointlessly. Edgy, but soft. (That’s Nickels’ work in general – edgy, but soft?) Double-edged millinery?
But the story is more than any of those things – beyond even my critical butterfly-net.. Like the story itself: “…there is nothing between her soul and the water but her skin.” Dressing-flaws to be used as airholes or keyholes to glimpse nudity. A reservoir of jumping fish. But now that’s me taking over. They’re not in the story itself. Maybaby I am….like all who dare to read it – or wear it… (8 May 09 – another 4 hours later)
A probably unforgettable fable or parable of a new Pied Piper of Pain or of a new Messiah Mountain-Man (Cf ‘Colder Still’ where the mountain-man duplicated things whereas the painmaker here divides single things into two.). Divide and Rule. Bravo! [Plus a beautiful description of a wink as an added bonus. Now try the rabbit stew!] (9 May 09)
In The South
This is so very short I have literally managed to read it a hundred times in a short space of time. I was none the wiser. But it then dawned on me that this is the father whose daughter had a boyfriend called Wedge. And the tiny kingfishers are airbabies in disguise. And Twohatta is ‘In The S’.
Alassio, I’m sure it means none of those things and I’m a hopeless reviewer! I’d post the whole story here for you to make up your own mind, and, indeed, I could do so without using up more space than if I replaced what I’ve said here about the story with the whole story itself! But Tim and the book’s publisher would probably turn ugly if I did that. There are spoilers and there are spoilers. (9 May 09 – one hour later)
Backalong in Bollockland
or, The World Made Flush
Cor, what a blinder! The Nickels buy bought it!
“Dawn came at different times of day then but mornings were still popular.”
You need to wear two hats when reading this story, a mad one and a sane one. The mad hat to help grapple with the sane & sensible plot-line that eventually lies within the text like a swollen vein ripe for wordvampires and the sane hat to help know how to shrug off the madder-even-than-Rhys-Hughes madness that covers the text with a SF-like holocaust of shrinkage known as the big-lettered Wipe associated with global-self-harming and many other madnesses (airbabies?) flattened on top of each other and also when read between the lines, eventually made flush and relative to new dimensions! This doesn’t apply to me, of course, as I’m Half Welsh.
I gradually grew acclimatised to this patchwork of prose and its oddly off-kilter language as one grows acclimatised to ‘Tristram Shandy ‘ or ‘Finnegans Wake’. But it’s madder than both. Thankfully, saner, too.
Sadder, too: “She was down in the coffee room in Woolie’s, like I said, with all the weeping shopgirls.” (9 May 09 – 3 hours later)
The Hungry Shine
The previous story’s Wipe makes us say here that “the land is ready for the sea.” Debussy’s ‘Cathédrale Engloutie’. Dunwich’s silent bells beneath the sea. There are many a “hippy sea girl” in the “dull seaside town” where I live. None of them are mermaids, as far as I know. Most are vulnerable. Some even worked temporarily in Woolie’s. I knew this story somehow even before I just read it for the first time. “Above everything the sheer air.” And I watch for further signs of the Nickelodeon streaking across it. This book is now half-formed. I relish the prospect of the rest of the journey. “Just take me where you’re going.” (10 May 09)
“And back in the blue sky of his bathtub that evening Mizzlesoft munches Marmite toast.”
That seems to sum up Mizzlesoft who runs a weather-forecasting bureau. A delightful story that flows beyond my reach, but I don’t mind. There are some stories you care about not getting. I get this story, and I wish I didn’t. No, I got that wrong. I do not get this story, it simply gets me instead. If there can be short-term nostalgia about a book, I’ve got it about this one. And this story is full of real nostalgia (Marmite etc) and in-built nostalgia! Sycamore seeds. Fox-cubs. Cloud formations. Storms and accidents. Inferred sadnesses. “The sort of folk who allow their geese to stray onto the property of another.”
When a very young child, I watched the clouds racing across the sky – and the next year I thought the clouds then racing were laggards in the same race – and years later (intermittently), I think the same thing. Today’s clouds, are so far back in the same race, it’s not even worth considering. Tomorrow’s clouds? Who knows? Or should we start a new race? A tabula rasa? This story sort of encourages me to be bold. Start a new race. You are never too old to start a new race of clouds (or airbabies?). (10 May 09 – 1.5 hours later)
This story is in two well-defined halves (Boo’s inverted narcissism and the later loss of innocence when the world becomes ‘wise’) and yet, strangely, the story forms a satisfying whole. Bits of ‘Colder Still’ and a possible shameful sky betokening doom from “Out There”. The latter, self-evidently, is a dark moment compared to this book’s otherwise welcoming skies. If you have a sky, one must expect bad as well as good portents to cross it.
A “watery double”. ‘Fin de Siècle’ promenaders with Proustian parasols.
The story’s ending (its last two paragraphs) – which I will not quote for fear of diminishing the effect – is a strong candidate for the best ending of any story I’ve read – possibly because of the context of the whole book so far, rather than because of just the story’s own circumscribed context. A bit of a conundrum there. Can short stories ever stand on their own? But perhaps the intrinsic attraction of stories is their raw edges or inconclusivities – so giving a context to stories (or drawing/inferring a context beyond themselves) has the danger of impugning the stories?
Boo “existed in a continuing mist of surprise at the unfolding wonders that the world had to offer.” (10.5.09 – another 2 hours later)
The English Soil Society
Being granted eponymity for the whole book potentially gives this story a power it never had before. Mulching the roots of all the other stories. But only mulching at all because there are these roots to mulch. It is its own Wipe within.
This is a hilariously clever story. It made me want to sing ‘Jerusalem’. It made me want go out and ask Sunday-trippers along the sea front near here whether they had read it. And I did. None, apparently, had. But I’m going to continue spreading the word. Just to add that soil specimens should only be given once your bladdersack is full.
“Within the picture frame, the broad stripes of shawls and skirts rustled motionlessly over rock pools; a pallid comet streaked lazily across the angeline sky.”
Indeed, I can sit back, lazily, myself. Now no need for me to be an interloping mulcher. (10 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
If I thought Nickels was in top gear so far, I now realise he had a further gear (overdrive?) and this is it. Here the mulched Root has arrived through the soil towards a viewpoint beneath it – and it is the Parthenogenesis of the Megazanthus (in my own terminology). Or the inverted Holy Tiptree.
Here we also see that words can be carbon-dated. And ideas become motive-forces that thrive and struggle along the channels of the Wipe Within. Rock and Pool become one. Books and Toys, similarly.
The sky has suddenly become a be-creatured cavity where the readers, in the shape of their own new fiction-induced souls, refresh the dead rocks of comets into shooting stars.
The language sets my blood racing. That doesn’t often happen. It needs to be experienced, not simply read as prose. Full concentration and consistent comprehension on the readers’ part are perhaps not the most important factors in absorbing meanings that are foreign to the words trying to impart those meanings. No detail of plot or quotation from it could possibly serve any purpose here. It is just one of those literary things that works away even when you’re not reading it. In fact I sensed something like it beneath the previous story when reading it earlier today, but I honestly feel that, until just now, I had not read ‘Tooley’s Root’ before. (10 May 09 – another 4 hours later)
‘Umbilical’ is not now used as a verb, but as a noun subject to usage by many different verbs dead and undead. The story is a dialectical symbiosis of telescoped love through time and along the aisles of Somerfield’s supermarket. Yet, one surprisingly needs to know less about Vampires’ straws than Angler Fishes’ danglies, I guess, to follow the Wipes and Flushes and Roots and Megazanthi and Re-salinations and Singlets and Puddlesters and Painmakers. Hey, these my comments in this real-time review are becoming ‘infected’ or, more positively, ‘inspired’ by the book’s own Mindswipes & Nickelodeons – yet my prose is somehow inferior, never keeping up with what it’s chasing. It’s as if I’ve sucked too hard.
“He said he’d seen it on Horizon.” (11 May 09)
“…bloody balloons were inflating and exploding from his throat.”
A beautiful story of war, its embedded journalists, its collateral damage – its shooting-stars, yes, shooting stars, in relativity of coming and going – its bloodbursts and shrapnel, its fantasy, its sleep-walking, its cinematic panning-shots – its indefinable Nickels slant…
Possibly in unconscious symbiosis with Allen Ashley’s ‘Somme-Nambula’ and Neil Williamson’s ‘The Happy Gang’ – and the feel of some of Jai Clare’s work that I currently happen to be reviewing in parallel with ‘The English Soil Society’.
And “Johnny Appleseed” to walk towards the shallow graves of Hell along with Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Martin Pippin’?
The language and thoughts continue to be con-eccentric rhythms and timbres but flow with such ease as if the word-shoals swim in their own piquant sauce (your favourite sauce, whatever it is – today’s special) even before they’re caught let alone cooked. However, I do despair of being able to convey to you the experience of reading Nickels. This self-indulgent review is useless. Stop reading it! Read Nickels, instead. That’s the only way. But still four stories to go. They’re not escaping my butterfish-net that easily!
“We dreamed encryption.” (12 May 09)
The Last of the Dandini Sisters
“His big bright moth wings brushed the ceiling, diffusing the sparkle across his spangly frock and beautiful fairy breasts.”
I listened to this while reading the Puppinis. This is a Nickels-flowing tale over generations of time (via haunted mirrors) of Proustian selves in drag and drag’s drag and uniformed and bedecked at various ages of the same self and it is full of references to minor nostalgias of the times that we’ve lived through, like the Black & White Minstrel Show (on which I remember seeing the black and white Dandini sisters in 1963 – before the author did), the doings of Music Hall people in theatrical panning-shots and even the Beckhams in Reality TV days more recently. All literally hanging on a “meaningless” symbol that I will not give away here. It even mentions my good self in the guise of the “Donkey Master of Clacton”!
“Holograms of planets and extinct tropical fish played over the laughing city. […] The night was clear and the stars sparkled through the bright moving shapes. It was panto-magic time.” (12 May – 1.5 hours later)
The Science of Sadness
This seems to bear the responsibility of substantial importance as a carrier of all the leit-motifs it is possible to find in this book, for example “sycamore aeroplanes”, the ‘dark they were and golden-eyed’ evolution (with the palindromic inversion of the word ‘love’ and “God only wants the guilty left alive”), “soil changes”, “their skins, that terrible wrinkle of salinisation”, “cruising night-clouds’ … the list is long. But that duty done, this story represents an exquisite word-shoaling treatment of Nature (and Survival against it), with hints of past and future perils, epidemics (“The rabbit factor”), wars (“Islamic build-up south across the water”), murders (“The Moors screamed in their graves”), global warming or cooling. Reading this is like “quietly drowning” and “life uncoiling”. When I experienced some of this book’s other stories, I excitedly raced. Here, I deliciously loped. And other epidemics: including lycanthropy, in a form beyond even the grasp of modern treatments such as TV’s ‘Being Human’. A story first published in 1994, “Science of Sadness” has actually matured, even though the words have not changed. It has both darkened and lightened, if that were possible. Hearing colours but both my hats hidden away on a coat-hanger. I imagine this family of characters lifting towards my reading-eyes like insects from under a microscope and the next minute rearing into the sky like huge flying fish glinting in the sun (now pale, but still the sun) or bounding as creatures of the night through the somehow still cultivated hotel grounds.
“That night, under a single star and an absent moon, the sea came back.” (12 May 09 – anoher 2 hours later)
Born In The Forest
This seems to be the previous story’s “world made flush”. Glimpsing the form of the story, you would know what I mean. Reading its contents, too. Other than that, it is too far “in the south” of my brain.
“I walk away from the too early sunset to where the sky’s all dark and the first twinklies are waking up.” (12 May 09 – another 30 minutes later)
“And the clouds in this book were perfect: the artist had obviously studied clouds very closely.”
Elizabeth Bowen is good with depicting children in her work. Judging by this story alone, so is Tim Nickels. An important comparison I do not make lightly.
This at first sight seems to be a gentle coda to the whole book, with nostalgic references to TV programmes and other aspects of my childhood. (I didn’t know the author was as old as me!). But then we come (in the context) to a shocking ‘digging for adults’ dénouement: the ‘soil nest’ with its own Mother Nature coiled inside? And one of the story’s small girls can be watched at the end as she begins, perhaps like an airbaby, to “rise again on her imaginary wings just like the birds had once risen so many years before.” And if that is a spoiler, I apologise. But, of course, nothing can spoil this book. Not even me.
Well, have I found all the leit-motifs, all the genuine, exploratory and non-existent ones? maybe.
Its gestalt? Its gestalt is earth and thought, sky and stars, and the gaps between where creatures live as humanly as they can manage bearing in mind the tolerance-margins of the plots granted to them. And this book, even if it is just one momentary shooting star (like your life between birth and death), it is better than no shooting stars at all. Indeed, being edgy and soft, we shrug off the inevitable and continue struggling to fish the angular ‘book’ from the soil nest itself as a symbol of eternity, whether eternity itself exists or not. But that maybe – just maybe – is wishful thinking regarding the power of literature. But thinking it at all is hopefully like gaining a true magic wishfulness. Another shooting star. Another memory. Memory is the Mother of Invention. And your own life is someone’s best invention. Even if at times it goes wrong.
I hope, too, I have managed to convey the amazing style of this book to entice you to obtain it, if only for reading it. But reading it is possibly not enough…
Whatever the case, these stories needed to be collected. They do stand alone – well, of course, they do, having done so in the past – but they also gain much as an overall experience beyond the act of simply reading them, as I have hoped to show. My experience was a personal one. Your experience will be personal, too, and no doubt different from mine. But I hope my experience has encouraged you to embark on harvesting an experience from this book of your own. That may sound pretentious for a reviewer to say. But I do tend to be, I guess, one of “that sort of folk who allow their geese to stray onto the property of another.” (12 May 09 – 2 hours later)
(to be continued)
The Tim Nickels Website at link immediately above.
2. Andrew Hook left… Sunday, 7 June 2009 6:01 pm
Des, thanks for this. My understanding is that “S” is called “S” because “S” represents the plural.