Tom Chivers' The Terrors
Tom Chivers' exuberant, coherent and original pamphlet The Terrors is mostly in prose. The likely stumbling block for potential readers, the formal premise, is also its main strength. A series of emails sent to the inmates of Newgate Prison 1700–60? You wonder whether such a tenuous thread (sorry about the mixed metaphor) is strong enough to suspend your disbelief from. But it is. I'd envisaged trying to forget the incongruity of 21st-century medium and 18th-century matter, but in fact it always remains before your eyes, insisting on its own strangeness and aptness simultaneously. The net result is rather like the mock-epic: London then and now inform each other, and the pamphlet invites us to think of the two milieux as equivalent. The method is introduced gently via a 'Guide to Email Etiquette', similar to the ones we've all seen a thousand times except for the irruption of historical material:
Don't overuse the exclamation mark.
Be concise and to the point.
Don't reply to spam.
Don't gape at Puppet-shews.
Don't talk about the Press.
Don't excavate the ragstone.
Do not request delivery receipts.
And so on. It's a neat introduction, because it evokes the themes of money, crime and hack writing which we (I, anyway) associate with the 18th century, particularly 18th-century London, via a contemporary form. The first email, which follows, applies the idea to spam; and in the next Chivers gets into his stride; the fascination with food and sex, and the exuberant attitude to language, seem to belong to both the centuries:
Watch a shank of lamb lip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you 'The Huntsman's Supper', or some other peasant chic moniker.
The method's difficulty is in the balance of contemporary and historical idiom, the mixing of 'thee' and 'wistful maidens' and 'danc'd' with 'whatever' and 'hate mail' and the parenthetical 'LOL' . On the whole Chivers manages it very well; and it needs and demands the reader's sympathy. If you're determined to cavil at it, you can – there's an air of the costume drama wafting around in the background – but that would be to miss the clowning, grave, Hogarthian point.
Of course the common theme to all these emails is death, the expected death of the inmates. Death is 'the end of speculation', and the prison is 'an island' or indeed anywhere, the inmates anyone. But more vivid are the routes they have taken to reach the gaol, their crimes: William Dodd is imagined haunting the shopping centre 'in hair-shirt, shell-suit, Nikes'; he is a ghost proper and/or he haunts the contemporary London criminal. The email format allows a brief narrative sketch of an inmate, an angle. 'I tried to map the city, how it all connected', but far from a map, we're given discrete moments and vistas. The partiality and incompleteness militate against a systematic or programmatic line. The most explicitly political contemporary connection comes with a mention of an 'orange jump-suit' and the 'drone of Boeings slowly stacking in the air above', but this head-on aspect closes almost as soon as it opens. This is for the best, since like all satire The Terrors is ambivalent about its subjects; its moral force is both complicated and reduced by its interest in the criminals and lurid details ('I attach the evidence of your crimes in high res jpegs'). But we didn't come for a sermon, after all.