Real Chester

Clare Dudman
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
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Join novelist Clare Dudman as she explores within the city walls of Chester in this new addition to the Real series. Here is the richly historic city as you won’t find it in guidebooks: a place which looks over its shoulder at its long and very visible past, and the continuing redevelopment and its effects on local people.

Largely established by the Romans, whose legacy is still clearly evident, Chester has been a centre of trade, military power and religion for two thousand years. It thrived in the middle ages, with priories, the cathedral, the castle, trade guilds providing centres around which life flowed. These, in turn, left a legacy of streets and buildings with which Chester lives today, including the famous double decker Rows now full of shops and restaurants.

Chester’s history informs the city and, in turn, the city lives off its history. Tourism is huge. Roman centurions roam the streets alongside umbrella-wielding tour guides, and on Heritage Days visitors can visit Roman and medieval remains hidden by contemporary shops and offices.

Dudman writes of all this and much more, including Chester’s Georgian and Victorian splendours, as she walks the streets and narrow alleyways of this small yet exotic place, bordered by the looping river Dee and the industrial Shropshire canal. Here are the buildings, the powerful families, the upstart merchants and above all the ordinary citizens of a remarkable and historic locale. Drawing on thirty years of residence, consulting documents and guides, Dudman has written a fascinating book that will appeal to locals, visitors and armchair travellers alike.


Review by The Chester Blog

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Real Chester (Seren Books) by Clare Dudman is a detailed and meticulously researched tour of Chester offering both historical background and modern insight. The author is a former research scientist and teacher who has lived in the city for over 30 years. Claire recently gave  tour of the city as part of October’s literature festival in support of the book launch.

The book is split into sections exploring each part of the city with historical fact sprinkled with modern day observations. For example readers can learn about the history of Chester castle and then feel the frustration and sadness that the area is slowly falling into decay and only accessible on secret Chester tours. Walking the walls the author observes the beauty of our city, whilst commenting on scaffolded areas or derelict buildings and inaccessible towers. The writing is beautifully melancholic and struck a chord with me as a fellow observer and chronicler of the city.  The text is also packed with interesting facts, many of which I hadn’t heard before. Who knew that Bob Monkhouse was the first act at the opening of Alexanders, or that Superdrug once housed the city’s first supermarket (Liptons ) which opened in 1961?  These and many other facts are uncovered during the book’s exhaustive travelogue. Readers will also get a sense of how much goes on in the city via the author’s description of events she has attended, these range from the Civil war battle re-enactment on the Dean’s field to the filming of Foyles War in 2014. The magic of the winter watch contrasts with the equally surreal and hum-drum image of a giant snowman being pushed through the Forum shopping centre.

Offering a warts and all guide to Chester from the Roman foundation through civil war and Storyhouse in the present day, the book is an excellent reference guide for newcomers. The author’s novelist background emerges in the poetic text with references to the many layers of history merging and interacting. A “city of contrasts” is evocatively brought to life , from the past, present and futures, to empty shops alongside designer boutiques, and “alongside the new cultural centre the man in a sleeping bag in a night in December”. Real Chester doesn’t shy away from the city’s perceived failings with the prevalence of betting shops and charity shops mentioned, and the ugly reality of sharps bins next to the homeless day centre. A tour of the Grosvenor shopping centre mentions the security guards on the look out for unauthorised photographers, as well as delving into the scandal of the Roman baths which were destroyed during construction in the 1960s.

Alongside the historical tour, the author includes a number of short asides and interviews, these were my favourite part of the book offering modern insight into Cestrian life. An analysis of the gateway linking the abbey square and Northgate street segues into a description of watching the Midsummer watch parade.  The author’s observation of a trial in session at the Crown court is another highlight. Short interviews with Roman Tours and an interview with the founder of Tip Top productions were also fascinating.

Real Chester is a great book and one which I will certainly refer to again in the future. Easy to read and packed with anecdotes, it will encourage the reader to take a new interest in the city. While Real Chester might not be the vision that the long dead Romans wanted, the book acknowledges that “Chester” is as much evoked by drunk racegoers, Rosie’s and King Kabs as it is by its walls, beautiful scenery and heritage. It might not be perfect Chester but its our Chester.

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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
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09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

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09/09/2014 - 11:44
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