Fugues On A Funny Bone
by Jan Woolf
what else has he done?' asked Graham suspiciously.
abused his key worker,' replied Debbi, leafing through her agenda
to quote,'contravening the authorities equal opportunities policy
around race, gender, transgender and sexual orientation.'
Spare us the runes, thought Graham.
did he actually say then?'
'Called him a black cunt.'
Reviewed by Sara Baume
may consider Jan Woolf to be in a providential position as a writer.
many past and present lives - as a film censor, a performance artist,
a theatre producer, a cultural activist and a special needs teacher -
allow her to situate stories across an array of contexts and to write
about each with sincerity. Unsurprisingly, there is a sentence on
the back-cover of her debut collection, Fugues on a Funny Bone,
which reads: "From a Hackney towpath to a day trip to Albania, she
covers subjects as disparate as physics, communism and pornography."
Yet the publisher’s promo is faintly misleading - the collection
is closer to home and less pretentiously intellectual than its blurb
suggests. Despite Albania and pornography, the stories are all
linked, with each fettered to a particular point and grounded in a
fetter-point is The Unit - an inner-city educational establishment
for problematic children.
are the sort of menacing youngsters one will get off at the wrong
Tube station to avoid, who wear their ASBOs like a badge of honour.
But they are also the smallest survivors of horribly tragic
beginnings - victims of circumstance whose delinquency is
understandable, almost reasonable. The setting is a London of
drastic culture clashes. It is a city characterised by a very
particular mode of speech and dress and deportment which Woolf
skilfully captures through dialogue and description. The troubled
teens speak in snippets, exclamations, insults and slang. The
descriptive language is similarly curt and bold, although
occasionally a little inelegant. Still it allows for the children's
respective personalities to leak through, as does the strange nature
of their camaraderie.
gonna blow up the tube Malik?' bellows Jordan at Finsbury Park,
rocking in his seat.
cocks his head. '
we'll be fucking sorry, you towel head.' Jordan lands an
affectionate punch on Malik's chest. 'But
you are my,' putting his arm around him, 'friend, Jordan.'
the first five of eleven stories, the spotlight swings almost
entirely from the teenagers and onto the professionals responsible
for their care - chief amongst whom are Ted, The Unit's headmaster,
and Hannah, a teacher on his staff.
something of a romance emerges between them, it only ever surfaces as
a footnote to other plotlines. In ANTú, Ted has endeavoured
upon a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a man called
Jeremy who wears corduroy trousers. In Soho Square, Hannah
has left her job at The Unit to work as a film censor, watching porn
movies in a dimly lit room all day long. The stories of the book's
latter half demonstrate brilliantly how the professionals who staff
The Unit are as intrinsically human, as flawed and infallible, as
their wayward charges. While Hannah and Ted speak obligingly in the
hollow jargon which has been prescribed to them and act as per
protocol of the institutions to which they are bound, Woolf makes it
clear that their words are laced with scepticism, their actions
executed with a heavy heart.
opens his eyes wide. 'Have you ever seen fresh snow at dawn? Have
you Jeremy? Your breath frosting the air, The winter sun just
Woolf using her stories to subtly undermine the social system to
which we are all fettered?
says Jeremy, wondering how much longer this poetic man could survive
the beauracracy of Special Needs management.
past has placed her in a privileged position, after all, to be
allowed reflect with authority upon the grievances of contemporary
society - upon a prevalence of unjust regulations which disregard the
individual, upon an accepted over-reliance on prescription
medication, upon a structure of class too sharply delineated. There
are times at which Woolf seems to get carried away with
the making of statements, and these tend to take precedence
over the creation of character or atmosphere. As in the example of
Kirsty, who works for the Tenant's Association in Muggins and
the Griot, "She was just off to hatha yoga at the Gaia Centre
in Stoke Newington Church Street", where "…she'd hoped
to pop into Fresh and Wild for a mocha cappuccino and a veggie bean
wrap." For me, such general and typical details have the exact
opposite effect to that which was presumably intended - the character
stops being a real person and becomes something of a symbol instead.
But on the whole, Woolf's messages are apposite and her characters
convincing. The stories which they shape left me both disturbed and
story in Fugues on a Funny Bone is prefaced by a colour
photograph of a piece of work by artist, Richard Niman.
all of these are details of sculptures assembled from old dolls and
mannequins. A piece of writing by Niman has been included at the
end, in which he suggests that the artworks were never intended to
form a literal link but to operate somewhat more elusively "as an
extension to the themes of the book". I am all in favour of
challenging the literary fiction genre by the inclusion of imagery,
but still it is something I have seldom witnessed done well. By
choosing to do so, Woolf has risked being automatically considered
less serious, her book less highbrow. In order to succeed, it must
be done exceptionally well, as in the case of W.G. Sebald. The
images must be easily relatable and flawlessly embedded. The prose
must be strong enough to prove that the pictures aren't being used
as a crutch for bad writing.
the case of Fugues on a Funny Bone, the images are as
unsettling and oddly alluring as the stories, yet I would question
whether they added anything to a collection already cluttered by
extensions of the moral kind. It is my belief that Woolf's curious
mix of haunting characters, brazen humour and pertinent proclamation
paint pictures far greater than the pictures themselves.