The Unofficial Bookclub

Review No 4

Accidental Flowers by Lily Peters, Arachne Press, £9.99 and Words from the Brink, editor Cherry Potts, Arachne Press, £9.99.

This intermittent series of blog posts is intended to profile new but sometimes lesser-known works on environmental themes. Arachne Press is definitely a micro-publisher whose progress will warrant close attention. It gives opportunity to new authors and focuses on new writing about our relations with nature. I especially admire that the staff are seriously looking, not only at content, but the way in which they present the material.

The editorial for their new collection of 2021 Shorts (pictured right) emphasises how they use no plastic packaging, nor do their printers, their electricity is 100 per cent renewable and they are fitting solar panels. All equipment and stationery are recycled products while their paper is wood-free. Let’s hope more mainstream publishing houses start to follow suit. Congratulations Arachne for this superb business model and stance.

One of their highly promising authors Lily Peter kindly sent me her new novel out of the blue last year and I have finally found time for my review. Accidental Flowers is a single united fabric but pieced together from a patchwork of short stories. Think of James Joyce’s Dubliners and you have Lily’s working blueprint. What I admired most was the enormously diverse ways in which she frames her central narrative, which is a rather shocking vision of social re-ordering.

Her forte is these close-focus portraits of domestic relationships and their inner workings, but through such snapshots of lovers or individual characters – at their allotments or walking their dogs and visiting friends – the author provides a personalised emotional prism through which we view the colder context of government breakdown in the wake of climate chaos. In a sense her methods humanise apocalypse and add humour: given that her theme is social disruption I was struck by Lily’s ability to make us laugh.

A good illustration of her narrative flexibility is the story entitled Sailing to Crouch – one of the darker episodes about the flooding of London. It is told convincingly and with fine attention to detail as a Twitter conversation by strangers online. The skeletal brevity and the inferential approach to the storyline, not to mention the spartan arrangement of the messages on the page, all add to the understated tragedy of the episode. Over the five pages of messages we witness the BBC as an organisation being taken off air by flood, while one of the parties to the tweet conversation is possibly drowned.

Peters’ version of a post climate-chaos world imay be roughly sketched behind her stories of individual lives. Yet we see a world subject to prolonged toxin-loaded rains and floods. These trigger a basic division between those who are persuaded, under state supervision, to go and live in a series of enormously tall survivors’ towers. Insulated from the worst effects of the floods, but isolated from the facts of what has actually happened below, these survivors are obliged to live off products yielded in high-rise greenhouses including toothsome stuff called ‘extracellular matrix’, a kind of pink protein goo. The social disruption inflicted by flood can be tasted as much as it is visualised in Peter’s prose. Then there is another group of survivors that forego government coercion and remain at ground level, a food-growing or food-scavenging community – hence the emphasis upon allotments – that form a self-help community of citizens.

I enjoyed this piecemeal conjuring of a future world but I was surprised also to note something missing from her narrative form. One way of putting my unease is to say that I wanted a richer stock of non-human characters. The book involves a large bouquet of human variation (and these are admirably set in north-east England near Newcastle, rather than in London; I liked this provincial version of the metropolitan), but aside from a sequence of relationships between people and dogs, very few other species have a detailed presence in Accidental Flowers.

Given that our western techno-industrial society has got into this ecological crisis through its collective self-referential preoccupations – material wealth disconnected from its planetary sources – do we not need to create stories that incorporate our indebedness and interrelationships with other parts of life? In short, I could have done with more trees, grasses, flowers, birds, mammals – and heaven forbid but what about the real heavy lifters of our world such as bacteria, phytoplankton, lichens, fungi and insects – inserted into the new fiction. For me dogs don’t do it. In fact, given that the global estimate for the canine population is 900 million, they are looking much more like the problem than the solution.

This aside, I was provoked and charmed, disturbed and moved by Peter’s short story sequence. I am expecting exciting things from her in the future.

To return to the wider issue: how do we tell stories that both take account of the problems and challenges we face on Earth while also offering a new way of being in relations with other species. Arachne’s pocket-sized volume of stories and poems edited by Cherry Potts faces this challenge more fully. Here are other species in abundance: birds, ferns, fungi, fish, frogs, toads, turtles, lions and wild flowers. Their stories imply and comment upon our story. One of the poems I really enjoyed was Kelly Davis’s ‘The Last Lioness’. This beautiful female beast, rather like ‘Martha’ the last passenger pigeon – Martha’s death in 1911 marked the extinction of the most abundant bird species on Earth – is housed in a zoo. (WordPress struggled a little with the verse space breaks so don’t take these lines as precisely replicating those in the original poems.)

People buy tickets

wait in snaking queues,

to see the queen

brought low:

The Last Lioness.

They can say

they were there,

took photos

on their phones.

 

In her cage, She is haunted

by the scent

of prey,

tastes the bubble of blood

at the antelope’s mouth,

sees the hooves kicking,

the sliver of life

snatched away.

 

Now there is only

pacing, pacing,

the slow draining of days.

Eyes that scanned the savannah

brought up short

            by walls.

Meat arrives                 in buckets

Equally I loved Lucy Grace’s poem ‘After This’, which celebrates lavender, spiders, bees, ants … and the possiblity of hope. So three cheers, for Lily Peters (as well as Kelly Davis and Lucy Grace), for Arachne Press and for flying ant day.

After this,

I’m going to speak of all the things

We no longer have.

All the things

We no longer point at, saying –

                                                            Look!

                                                            Look at that!

Later

We will not know

Where everything went,

We will look at each other, saying –

            Remember those massive spiders that came

                                    out from behind the telly?

Remember how those bees loved your lavender?

                                    Remember flying ant day?

We will not remember why we ridded them.

We will not remember

That spiders were housekeepers and fat bees were lifesavers

And ants built their communities under our feet.

In the shed

Under the sink

Beneath the stairs

We will secretly gather old killing sprays and suffocating powders,

Embarrassed by ourselves.

After this,

I’m going to speak of all the things

We still have. 

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