Russell Mardell: Earnest, mocking and insightful

by dollydelightly

Russell Mardell makes me laugh.  Firstly, as someone who is very funny. But, secondly, and more importantly, as a writer. This is significant, because funny people aren’t always funny on paper. Mardell is. He says his “shit social skills” is why he “became a writer.” He’s being modest. He also says he imagines I swear a lot. He’s right. In fact, I lost count of the number of times I animatedly exclaimed “f***” while reading his work. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass is Mardell’s first book, a loosely assembled collection of reticulated sketches involving a dragoon of crackpot characters; cullions, lurchers, drifters, human blunders, women who keep men in their bathtubs and other vermicular personalities. The setting, a town of undisclosed purlieus called Mewlish Lull, indirectly connects the characters together as their individual weird and peculiar tales fall into context through linkage to a place that belongs on a “government target board” rather than “a postcard” and supposedly “Kills Its Kids”. Occasionally, perhaps, that could be justified but generally it’s not right, is it. Thus when in the opening story, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Rain, a nameless narrator arrives to be greeted by the infanticide-denoting epitaph one gets the distinct impression that things are a little awry. This notion is further fortified by his encounters with the locals; a dapper mendicant living in the underpass, a pusillanimous shopkeeper and a “suspiciously clingy” woman called Jennifer with a gimp in her bathtub.

All of the above is enough to give you a head-spin, while also leaving you wondering about the man in the tub and why the anonymous narrator, who resurfaces throughout, is so keen to jilt his old life. These ruminations are quickly dispelled by the opening pages of Armand Gull Drinks Whiskey. As I told Mardell immediately after reading the story, it made me snigger so much on my morning commute the bus almost toppled over. It opens with the following: “Edward James Lynton Tatchford (Tatch, to his friends, of which he counted five, and Teddy, to his mother) had been in the shack on the beach, battling against the side effects of winter for five days and was starved of company. The fevered and slightly bizarre tramp he had met on the third day had run away and left a shoe in one corner. It was the sort of shoe that looked like it had fallen from a cartoon and he was frightened it would start talking to him.” And it gets more absurd with every page, but also more perspicacious as a pragmatic explanation of a man being driven to extremes by the dross of a nine-to-five life. Mardell’s writing has a visual quality, possibly due to his background in film and theatre, and shows a penchant for post-modern aesthetic. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass contains a valorisation of individual subjective experiences relayed through tracing of each character’s consciousness and all its contingent manifestations. It is quietly epistemological, and inquires into the practicalities of perception over objective universal truths. But it has a few of those too.

The collection of stories has no steadfast linear narrative apart from the intermittent commentary of the unnamed protagonist who embarks on a new life in this rather peculiar town, because as he says: “Someone I might have loved had told me to grow up. So here I was growing up.”  The weird exordium into town is followed by employment with “Stan the white van man” who dispenses supererogatory clichés, chats “casual horrors” and bleats about the “bleedin’ southern liberals”. The situation is further complicated by Jennifer’s unplanned pregnancy and her reluctant involvement with the pestilential gimp. The narrator, who unwittingly becomes part of the scene, is a fellow jaded by the doggedly mundane modern world, yet his cynical transcendence of sentiment is a defence mechanism, a fear of being human, since being human is a painful business. This is reflected through his own recollections of past and lost loves, disappointments, endless shifting from town to town, and a sort of entropy defined by taking everything, even the biggest of life’s surprised, with a “non-committal, suits-all occasions” smile. Yet it feels as if he has embarked on a search for something, in both a metaphysical and spiritual sense, for something that remains elusive. The protagonist is trapped within himself, by his past and yet estranged from it, a sort of middle class paradigm, which propels him at one point to conclude that maybe he “really is pointless.” Not an uncommon thought. I’ve had a few of those myself.

Mardell polarises the problems of contemporary society by illuminating various stereotypes, occasionally to fetishistic lengths, through irony and absurdist tactics thereby highlighting the inanity of our uber-sophisticated modern world. His work is at once earnest, mocking and insightful, but as Mardell himself says he likes “readers to make their own conclusions, superimpose their own emotions and logic” and take from his “slightly skewed reality” whatever is “pertinent to them”.  And yet his skewed reality seems to make perfect sense, as for example when the narrator speaks to a stranger in the park watching a kid fly a kite and the stranger says: “Simple pleasures…It is the continual search for more and more diverse gratifications that stunts us as humans. The technological age with all its undoubted wonders has also always made us look for more. Always look for better. The next big thing,” when in truth it is the small and infinitesimal things, such as flying a kite, that make all the difference.  The chapter, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Smiler Desmond is Dead, charting the interaction between the two men, reveals a different, more open and self-reflective side to the narrator who has “spent years cultivating strong defences.” The stranger, a once famous but now washed-up comedian, at one point says: “I look at so many of my peers now, pompous people who would drone on and on about ‘their art’, about ‘their craft’, now whoring themselves out to ridicule just so they can cling on to the fake life that has hidden them from the real world so long ago. Prostituting for a pay packet that keep their pneumatically-titted wife in handbags and spray tan. I dry hump a tuba, but somehow I think I have more dignity.” A germane point about modern day culture and its histrionic preoccupation with the superficial? I think so.

The stories are thematically alike in that they aim to reveal something about human nature, like the one called Farrington about a boy making his second voyage to London “and the first without the safety net of being a school trip”. His mother’s words ring in his ears as he gets into town and remembers: “Nothing but freaks and deviants, gangsters and whores, terrorist and bankers!” To set him up for his sojourn to see his girlfriend his mother enrols him in a preparatory obstacle course with the words,“You go to London, you go prepared,” where he is subjected to the dithyrambs of one Corporal Max Billings, a man with a “questionable military background”. Mardell exaggerates the concept of moral panic to the nth degree to reflect and decry the typical small-town mentality which is surprisingly prevalent to this day. An overview of human nature is also the subject of the title story which captures a day in the life of a misanthropic OCD-ridden fellow who sits on a park bench smoking one of his 10 daily cigarettes waiting for something interesting to happen. But when it finally does, he feels isolated and ignored by the people with “dull metal objects adorning their heads” gathering together in the park, and retreats to the safe-haven of his flat, concluding dejectedly:  “Years of itching away from people and living alone on fun wealth and bleary-eyed despondency that had finally cracked its solitary goal. They had left me to it.” By and large Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass depends on the reader to construct a larger narrative from a number of subtle hints, incidental details and scattered chronology while it blends fact, scene and portraiture into a compendium of misanthropy and bizarre eventualities. Interestingly, London provided much of the inspiration for the setting of Mewlish Lull. The rest Mardell attributes to the art of fiction although he does concede that there are “certain nods and hints” which are true to life.

Born in Cambridge in 1975, a place where back in those days all the “mammas went to unleash their children to the world”, Mardell grew up in Salisbury and thereafter “bummed around various places” including Bristol where he settled for a while in “an attic flat” and began writing and “living through the night on coffee and cigarettes”. He has had a variegated career from working in a video shop to working as a writer and director in independent film as well as penning five plays, some of which he directed and produced. He is currently writing a new book when taking time off from being cajoled into reminiscing about a poetry prize he won as a youngster for a poem about a hippo that died in transit due to ineffectual humans. I thought it a rather intriguing premise, as is the one behind Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass. Personally, however, I think I would have liked it to have revolved exclusively around the down-and-out narrator but perhaps there’s a reason why it does not. Perhaps that was the writer’s intention but, whatever it is, I think Mardell is right when he says “the only thing that matters is what the reader gets” from one’s work , the emotion it solicits, the reaction it evokes “be it good or bad.”