Purefinder by Ben Gwalchmi (Review & interview)
Gwalchmi has created a phantasmagorical journey through 1858 London. Purefoy is a “Purefinder”, a collector of sh*t (called Pure in slang) which is sold to the tanners.
"Though they called it mud, everyone in London knew what they were treading on. There were children who remained barefoot throughout the day so that they could get it between their toes. Their only sand was manure"
A child is killed and Purefoy is collared by the enigmatic pseudonymous Murphy as the culprit to be taken to justice. The two then embark on a foot journey across the city which serves to explore 1850’s London through their eyes. It is not an easy book to read, Gwalchmi’s prose often needs for you to work at it to glean the meaning and occasionally was a little too obscure for this reader. There is not much in the way of plot, being more a development of the two men’s relationship and what has brought them both to this time and place. A smorgasboard of odd characters are encountered and interacted with, my favourites being the street gang known as the “Mighty Cabinet Group” because “if you cross them you’ll end up in a cabinet”. The book is full of cant and slang and language and most notably several dialogues in Welsh (translation is provided) and Gwalchmi is obviously enjoying himself digging in the rich soil of British language.
London has always been a polyglot. London is where we run to hear new, fantastical imaginings of language; where we wrap ourselves in foreign matter in the knowledge that a cocoon of experience will enable us to lose and warm ourselves until we’ve wings enough to take our newly communicative selves elsewhere. The City speaks only one language, London speaks with infinite variations.
The journey, highlighting as it does the London poor, is a juxtaposition with today’s austerity society, several times the characters speak of what it would be like in 150 years’ time. Through it all runs the rivers and the streets which serve as characters on their own.
The back reads "Purefinder is a Gothic-horror historical thriller with a metaphysical edge; a circadian, Dantean exploration of London, loss, and fraternity; mystery, blood, mud, and guts combined; Rabelaisian relief; human tragedy; and the important questions at the heart of any time" and that summation sentence is more in keeping with the text than any I could attempt. This isn’t a forgettable book and some of the imagery will stay with me, probably as I had to be wide awake and paying attention whenever I picked up the book.
Overall – A complex and sometimes difficult read but one that will be rewarding to the right reader.
I asked Ben a few questions about the book and his writing & many thanks to him for the enlightening answers:
Q.: In the book’s epilogue you pose, and answer the question – “why are we, in the 21st century, fetishizing the Victorian?” Can you expand on the answer you give in the book?
A.: Glad to - in the book I wrote 'See the white blood cell above. See me dressed like a Victorian on the street but with more chains. Know that I know my enemy' in answer to those questions.
In short, killing the Victorian by wearing the Victorian.
The white blood cell in question [and quoted from a China Mieville blog-post in the epilogue] wears the head/face/look of the thing it's just killed in order to let other white blood cells know what to look for and also to fool any left over antigens so it can then attack them more easily. Mieville's blog post focused on the berserk, tribal, and warlike nature of the action but it inspired in me an approach to punk, protest, and social change that is constant - 80% of the time you see me, I'll be wearing Victorian style clothing. This often becomes a talking point and I get to tell people why and why it's important. I wear Victorian clothing because we still live in a country that upholds the Victorian era as a halcyon one - some have already proved it by saying I look dapper when they see me in Victorian clothing. We have to think why it's hard coded in us to think this, over and above ripped jeans, and then try to see past that to the larger societal issues that are still based on Victorian, austere political and social attitudes.
That's probably not as pithy an answer as is possible but you did say expand, Peter.
Q.: You have a quote from John Berger in the book – “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich”. Do you think there is a Dickensian element to today’s austerity & say the rise of food banks?
A.: There's no doubt in my mind that the Dickensian is alive and well in our current British government and anyone who buys into their shtick - do we see David Cameron's waistline getting any smaller? That most of the Western world now understands what we mean when we talk about the 1% and the 99%, the Dickensian never went away. To add insult to injury, the millionaires in charge of Britain blatantly lie to us* about how they're helping in order to throw most of us off the scent.
* (Pete - The "truth" of this episode is a matter for discussion. I find the comments enlightening. There is no doubt that the story has been subject to spin but whether it is outright lies is a different matter. However the "Help to buy" scheme is dubious.)
Q.: The book basically follows a walk across London, have you mapped this out? Walked it yourself?
A.: I have mapped it out and used a map of the time to draw their route on - this then lived above my laptop at all times while writing. I have a question for you though, does it definitely follow a walk across London? It could be seen to in one way but there are at least 3 other ways of looking at what happens and I hope it lends itself to re-readability. Unfortunately, I couldn't fully walk the exact route they take in the book because London's roads have changed quite a bit since then. I have, however, walked as much of it as is now possible.
Q.: If you could be a character from the book, who would it be and why?
A.: I'm glad I don't have to be but if I were forced to choose I'd say the Twirler from chapter 10 as he's quit drinking. If I didn't like drinking, I'd probably get a lot more done.
Q.: There is a lot of Welsh in the book (you do provide translations though which is welcome) what made you choose Welsh, apart from the fact the protagonist is Welsh of course.
A.:I wanted both a textual and a formal way of showing some of the book's concepts - immigration, the complexities of communication, strength in diversity - and as a Welshman, not only is it important to me but the liminality of being bi-lingual encourages you to see all things as a conversation instead of a one-sided lecture. The most important reason though is to show immigration as always being existent and that everyone's an immigrant - immigrants to love, to the bed, to any new social network, to any new job.
Q.: The book is very good at showing a slice of London life from 1858, how much research did you have to do? Have you read Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor?
A.: Mayhew's London Labour... was a major part of my research and one I always returned to. I did roughly 3 years of research for Purefinder. Part of it was underfoot after reading about that area, much of it was re-reading Dickens, and much more was fact checking.
Q.: What was the path to publication like? Cosmic Egg books say “If your preference is for Dragons and Fairies or Angels and Demons – we should be your first stop” and yet your book (no spoilers) doesn’t seem to fit this?
A.: I must admit that I gave up on it being published for a while. After I'd finished writing and redrafting it, I was turned down by agents and publishers over and over again. I'd submitted to so many that by the time I moved from Mid Wales to Bristol for work, I'd forgotten that I'd submitted to John Hunt Publishing [the over-arching publisher of which Cosmic Egg Books is an imprint] - it was months later, at Christmas, that I received word from them. As JHP has another new imprint - Top Hat Books - it might have suited, there was a little discussion as to where it best fits but because Cosmic Egg say 'If your passion is Fantasy, Horror, or Science Fiction, Cosmic Egg books will feed your hunger.' After that, I worked with my editor on certain things and then closely with my designer and it took about a year between signing the contract and the book coming out. I feel very lucky.
Q.: Are there any real historical events that inspired you to write the book?
A.: There are: 1858 was considered 'The Year of The Great Stink' where The Thames began to smell so badly that the government finally commissioned sewer works for the entirety of London; there was an Afghanistan war then as ours is ongoing now; Franz Liszt was photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl; John Snow died; Felix Nadar took the first aerial [and thus first full-city] photograph; and in 1857, Gustave Dore completed his L'Enfer [Hell].
Q.: There’s a lot of drinking in the book, one drink I’ve not heard of before is the Humpty Dumpty. Have you tried this? What’s your favourite tipple?
A.: I've not tried a Humpty Dumpty though the recipe is available online - I'd love to! My favourite tipple is [depending on the weather] either a Blandford Fly ale or a Chianti.
Q.: What are you working on currently?
A.: Currently I'm writing a few things: an adventure set in 1387 inside Bodiam Castle for Splash & Ripple and the National Trust; a collection of poetry dedicated to film-noir; I'm slowly but surely writing my first graphic novel; I'll be working with the Welsh National Opera again in 2014 which I'm looking forward to and am enjoying revisiting my research while updating it; and I'm gathering together the research and pieces necessary for my next prose work that I'm tentatively titling The City's Time.
Q.: What is your advice, in one sentence, for new writers?
A.: Never quit. No matter what.
Ben Gwalchmai can be found here: http://bengwalchmai.com/