Thomas Ovans reviews 1948 by Andy Croft

1948 By Andy Croft
Illustrated by Martin Rowson
90 pp, £7.99, Five Leaves Press
http://www.fiveleaves.co.uk/poetry.html

Andy Croft’s 1948 is undoubtedly something of a tour de force, being a verse novel made up of about 150 Pushkin sonnets (plus another nine in the Dedication and Acknowledgements). Croft’s fondness for rhyme and metre makes him something of a rarity among present day British poets – and his ability to be both prolific and skilful with his chosen forms makes him rarer still. Between 1948 and his previous rhyming detective story, Ghost Writer (Five Leaves, 2008), Croft’s output of Pushkin sonnets this century is surely exceeded only by the achievement of late Stanley Mitchell in his splendid 2008 translation of Eugene Onegin.

1948 is set in an alternative version of post-war Britain. The rest of Europe, having been liberated by the Red Army unaided, is now entirely communist and The Channel’s now an Iron Curtain. Britain is governed by a Lab-Comm coalition, but
In fact the programme’s less ambitious
Than those who’ve voted for it think;
The House of Lords may be suspicious
But London isn’t Red – it’s Pink.

Certain parts of Croft’s 1948 are consistent with the reality that some of us remember: London is still the chosen venue for the Olympic Games and the film Passport to Pimlico is being shot on locations in SW1. Names of some of the characters – a detective hero called Winston Smith and his uptight girlfriend Julia – are an oblique acknowledgement that Orwell’s 1984 was written during the “real” 1948. Historical truth receives an intriguing twist when Winston Smith comes across a copy of a book ‘by Eric Blair’ whose dystopian vision of 1984 is appropriate to the politics of fictitious 1948.

I will not attempt to summarise the plot, which includes several murders, political intrigues and betrayals, a motorcycling heroine called Tamara (borrowed from Eric Ambler’s novels) and a showdown at Wembley Stadium. The narrative rips along at a brisk rate – although its thread is interrupted rather too often by the author’s own asides and self-criticisms (I cannot find a rhyme for April). While the overall tone is very much tongue-in-cheek, Croft does well to conjure atmospheric film noir settings: .. broken streets beside the Thames / like silent blocks of printer’s ems; or The clouds move in. The shadows shrink. It seems a pity, however, that he undercuts good lines, as in:
The wharf rat slips behind a derrick
And disappears in to the night.
(To make it seem more atmospheric
The scene is filmed in black and white.)

Throughout the book, but particularly evident in the verses about the alternative version of 1984, we encounter the political concerns which inform so much of Croft’s poetry. It seems to me that his engagement with such issues is as relatively rare in British poetry as his determined use of rhyme and form; indeed, alongside some of Croft’s best passages, the work of certain other celebrated poets can feel rather academic and self-indulgent. There is a double sting in Winston Smith’s reaction as he looks at the prediction of 1980’s England:
This writer doesn’t know the British
If he believe we’d go all skittish
Each time She told us to rejoice
In her best Lady Bracknell voice.

No prizes for guessing the identity of ‘She’ of course; and things get worse as Smith reads on, against his will, / of banking crises, unemployment, / and darker, darker pages still…
Until the chorus of ‘rejoice’
Becomes a swelling hymn to Choice!

My main criticism of the book is that Croft too frequently steps back to comment on his own work. Sometimes he draws attention to his own craft; and elsewhere he apologises for weaknesses or short-cuts in the plotting. Such disclaimers may be amusing early in the book; but as late as page 79 he seems to want it it both ways – being self-deprecating and self-congratulatory at the same time:
… ( I fear I lack
The wit of David / Bacharach
To find the best rhymes for this stanza,
But that’s the point I’m trying to make.)
This verse-form’s not a piece of cake,
It’s more like trying to drive a panzer
Through miles of sticky treacle-tart.
It may be sweet, but is it art?

Well, yes, it is art. But Croft makes the craft (and graft) element pretty visible as well. I am reminded of a scene in the film Chariots of Fire where the Harold Abrahams character is chided by a pair of elderly academics for being too serious about his athletics training. Abrahams retorts that these two establishment figures value achievement just as much as he does; but, unlike him, they want also to cling to the fiction that success can be obtained with a god-like effortlessness. It is one thing to be frank about the work that goes into a piece of good writing; but Croft seems oddly over-keen to strip away any mystique from what he does so well. And his digressions sometimes hinder the unfolding of the story line – I had to turn back after several verses of comment to remind myself who the first murder victim actually is. (Or, rather, was.)

These last remarks notwithstanding, 1948is a book which is enjoyable on several levels – for its well-made poetry, for its lively narrative and for its underlying critique of British politics. Moreover the text is well complemented by Martin Rowson’s illustrations. (The book’s cover picture shows a gloomy and anxious-looking George Orwell; but I cannot help reflecting that Orwell’s precise writing style would surely never have found room for so graceless and ugly a word as “wonga” – even for the sake of a rhyme.)

Thomas Ovans is Irish and came to London in the mid 1990s.  He has a background in technical and academic writing and editing, mostly in the field of aerospace engineering.  However he has recently begun to diversify into other forms of prose, including book reviews.  And after being a serious reader of poetry for many years he is now beginning to publish some poems of his own.