An Alternative History Comedy-Romance
Noir Film in Pushkin Sonnets


1948, Andy Croft (90pp, 7.99, Five Leaves )


   A car pulls up. An Austin 7.
   The shadows hide the driver's face.
   Smith checks his watch. Five past eleven.
   He steps out from his hiding place.
   hen hears some footsteps right behind him.
   A shout. And then the headlights blind him.
   He runs across. The driver's gone.
   A smell of fruit. What's going on?
   A second car-door slams. Smith hurries
   Back round towards the gangway stair;
   He climbs the steps, but no-one's there.
   The moon comes out. A wharf-rat scurries
   Behind the gantry's silhouette.
   Smith lights another cigarette.

1948 is a novella in about 150 Pushkin tetrameter sonnets, of which the one above is a fairly typical example. With the tetrameter permitting less leeway within the line than the usual pentameter, and each sonnet having to adhere strictly to an AbAbCCddEffEgg rhyme-scheme (where the capitalised letters must be unstressed full rhymes, and the lower-case letters stressed ones), it's unsurprising that few poets in English choose to pit themselves against it at any length. Presumably the half-dozen who have done so since the early '80s enjoy really hard challenges, and the sense of belonging to a unique group. Andy Croft complains it's like 'trying to drive a panzer/ through miles of sticky treacle-tart' while masochistically extending its use not only to his lengthy dedication and acknowledgements, but even for the contents page, which summarises each of the seven chapters in two pithy and comic lines. Croft has always written poems with full rhyme and solid rhythms, but now with both a previous novella Ghost Writer and long poems in Three Men on the Metro in Pushkin sonnet sequences, he seems to be demonstrating a predilection for this horrendous form and is probably now its leading exponent in English.

The novella takes place in an unusual alternate history: the Soviet Union has reached the Rhine before D-Day and the Iron Curtain begins across the Channel. Britain is balanced between East and West with a Lab-Comm coalition in power. George VI has decamped to Rhodesia, Eliot and Pound are broadcasting fascist propaganda from Madrid, and Churchill is touring America giving ominous speeches. Russian culture, rather than American, is in vogue, while the USA is threatening an economic blockade and a boycott of the London 1948 Olympics. Such a counter-historical reality is rich with satirical opportunities, and the book makes the most of them. In this world, George Orwell is trying to nark anyone conceivably pro-American to the authorities, and believes that 'the CIA/ are everywhere!' Auden is in Leningrad, and Horizon is Red Horizon, where in a Fitzrovian pub, the assembled literati are desperately trying to be working-class radicals. Our hero, Winston Smith, is assisted not by U.S. intelligence but by a glamorous NKVD operative - in fact none other than Tamara Zaleshoff, imported from the Eric Ambler crime novels of the '30s. Most of the other characters are re-cast from Nineteen Eighty-Four: O'Brien is Winston's boss, Charrington a racketeer and Syme a reporter. Winston himself comes across Orwell's novel in Chapter Five. This Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, is rather more prescient than its original, describing exactly how the world is today, with 'torture camps and endless war' and where 'everybody loves Big Brother'. Winston reads it and dismisses it as far too outrageous and extreme to be credible.

Against this topsy-turvy backdrop, the story kicks off in the manner of a hard-boiled crime novel, albeit one that's satirically aware of its over-use of the tropes of the genre: the dockside murder, the investigation, the subsidiary murder, the attack on the detective and the unexpected ally arriving just in time. It piles in references to '30s and '40s gumshoe fiction, and to films and film-stars of the same period. But steadily under the weight of its contradictions it begins to metamorphose into an Ealing Comedy - completely so by the final farcical scene in which Winston rescues the Olympic Torch at the Wembley opening ceremony. In fact there's a running conceit that the poem's a film and that the characters are 'stars' with their own autonomy and expenses who, alongside costs for settings, costumes and music, constantly risk bankrupting the author. There is romance too, although both Winston and Julia are hampered, thanks to their respectively-gendered reading-matter, by a hopelessly unrealistic view of the other sex. Meanwhile, the self-conscious, chatty and self-correcting narrator pretends to be concerned about the pace of the plot while continuing to digress in a manner worthy of Byron's
Don Juan. He provides richly bathetic comic effects, marvellously-done Noir descriptions, and a lovely faux moral tone ('scenes of such inebriation/ have no place in a book like this'). The jokes range from the punning or exuberantly silly ('this year's Proms have picked The Nose'; 'a maxim of Gorky's') to others comprehensible (I assume) only to Russophones, and a few surely to none but serious 1930s culture geeks. How many people will smile when Tamara is described as 'the very spit of Brenda Marshall/ In Paris After Dark' from knowing she was the character played by Marshall in that film? As to the hudibrastic rhyming, Andy Croft has outdone even his usual standards: I especially liked 'Noir-ish/ tovarish', 'Wapping/ shopping', 'Rioja/ docker', 'bonuses/ Kronos's', 'kisses/ Mrs' and not least, 'psyche/ crikey!' The mid-century London idioms ('proper frantic', 'Old Blighty', 'lummox') and - appropriately - rhyming slang are spot-on, while the Northern sound-rhymes ('moustache /ash', 'trucks/ looks') remind us that the narrator isn't a local himself. Similes and themes make links from his earlier writing: the long-distance running metaphor of the long poem, the 'rat' in  democratic, and above all the profound critique of Orwell that dates back to his first book, Red Letter Days. Given all this dexterity, resonance, fun, erudition and emotional richness, it continues to flummox me as to why Andy Croft isn't better recognised. Perhaps it's his politics? Maybe his work'll be more noticed in some future, more congenial climate? It's worth hoping.
 
    Guy Russell 2013