Barry Unsworth

British novelist Barry Unsworth has died in Italy aged 81.  I’ve read several of his novels, the most outstanding being his story of the 18th-century slave trade in Liverpool, Sacred Hunger, for which he was awarded the Booker prize in 1989. The Guardian obituary today begins:

Barry Unsworth .. was a writer in the tradition of William Golding and Joseph Conrad. Pre-eminent among novelists of empires in decay, his range spanned the Ottoman, the Venetian and the British hegemony, and the middle ages to the present day. His novel Sacred Hunger, about the 18th-century slave trade, was the joint winner of the Booker prize in 1992 and, in the opinion of many, should have won it outright.

Unsworth was born in the mining village of Wingate, Co Durham. His father had started his working life at the age of 13 as a miner, but later found a job with an insurance company in Stockton-on-Tees. At primary school, Barry revealed a gift for composition and became accustomed to seeing his stories pinned to the wall with gold stars on them. “I saw,” he said, “that the way forward was to get as many gold stars as possible.” When he left Stockton grammar school, he announced that he wanted to be a journalist. “I couldn’t possibly say I wanted to be a writer, not in Stockton-on-Tees at that time.”

In 1988, suffering from writer’s block (an experience that informed his novel Sugar and Rum), Unsworth accepted a six-month British Council appointment as writer-in-residence at Lund University in Sweden, returning with Sacred Hunger, the story of the mutinous crew of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant, which went on to share the Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

In a statement on the British Council website, Unsworth wrote:

As a child I was beset by the sense of secret pathways, tracks leading away from, running alongside, occasionally touching, the ones everyone knew about. They could be anywhere, wherever there was cover. There were privileged people who could step into them at will because they knew the access points. Or you could somehow blunder upon them. This sense of hidden alternatives was always like possessing a secret and it always involved a sort of conflict with the familiar world. All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told. Before it can be properly told one needs to explore the ways, find embodiments in character, deal with the weather and the look of things, get it right. But whatever the ramifications, whatever turns the path takes, the beginning is always there, in a particular moment, a particular point of access.

In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger in 1992, Unsworth commented:

As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies. You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.

See also

Sacred Hunger: the duty to secure profit

There is almost nothing right or wrong which does not alter with a change in clime. A shift of three degrees of latitude is enough to overthrow jurisprudence. One’s location on the meridian decides the truth, that or a change in territorial possession. Fundamental laws alter. What is right changes with the times.
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

I’ve been re-reading Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I regard as one of the outstanding English novels of the last half-century.  It’s powerful novel which explores the morality of the 18th century Liverpool business class that grew rich on the Atlantic slave trade.  It was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1992.

The novel opens in Liverpool, growing fast and growing rich on expanding trade in cotton, sugar and – especially – slaves.  It tells the story of the Liverpool Merchant, a slaving ship purpose built for the triangular trade at the direction of William Kemp, typical of the Liverpool merchants who amassed great wealth from the slave trade. Barry Unsworth’s tale is an epic of greed and suffering, at whose centre are two men of contrasting character and outlook – Erasmus Kemp, the cold, calculating merchant’s son, and Matthew Paris, his disgraced cousin, a free thinker who despairingly takes up his uncle’s offer to sail as doctor aboard the Liverpool Merchant.

Everything about this novel reflects Unsworth’s painstaking research and attention to detail – the convincing evocation of mid-18th century Liverpool, from its slums and waterside bars to the mansions of the newly wealthy merchants, the language and ideas of the time, and the varied cast of characters. Of these, few characters in modern literature evoke terror and grim, determined brutality as much as the captain of the  Liverpool Merchant – Thurso, a shrewd and merciless figure, reminiscent of Melville’s Captain Ahab.

As he charts the voyage of the Liverpool Merchant along the west African coast, Unsworth reveals the nature of the terrible trade and the attitudes of all those who are engaged in it, each pursuing in their own way the profit that it generates.  The ruthless pursuit of that profit – the ‘sacred hunger’ of the title – and how it is justified is Unsworth’s central concern:

Money is sacred, as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

But Unsworth also explores, in the heart-breaking second half of his novel,  the different standards of morality and utopian ideas that were emerging to challenge slavery and racism. The love of money, the making of profit: sacred hunger. The book may be set in the days of slavery but Unsworth’s aim is to encourage us to reflect upon the morality of the present. In a 1992 interview, Unsworth said:

It was impossible to live in the Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.

Sacred Hunger is a great literary achievement, combining masterful storytelling with scholarship and a deep understanding of human psychology and philosophical issues.


Sugar and Rum: dark times in Liverpool

Well, this is a rum do…

From 1984 to 1985 Barry Unsworth was writer in residence at Liverpool University. This was the time when he was doing research that resulted in Sacred Hunger (1992), his powerful novel of the Atlantic slave trade that moves from Liverpool to West Africa, Florida and the West Indies, and which was joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1992. It was also a period in which, if we are to draw any autobiographical conclusions from the book which preceded Sacred Hunger, Unsworth suffered from writer’s block.  Sugar and Rum (published in 1988) was inspired by Unsworth’s residency at Liverpool University and contrasts the city’s decline and problems during the Thatcher years with its prosperous heritage.

I stumbled upon Sugar and Rum via Google Books, where it is possible to read extracts.  I discovered that the novel’s opening scene takes place just round the corner from where I lived in 1985, and still live.  Since it’s not every day that you find a novel set so close to home, I decided to read it.

Unsworth’s novel is a journey through dark, inward-focussed zones of depression, both in the economic sense (with scenes that draw us back to the Liverpool that decayed and smouldered with rage  under the Thatcher regime) and the personal (the book’s main character, Benson, is suffering from writer’s block and appears to be close to a mental breakdown).  Depressed, nearly manic, unable to work on his historical novel about the slave trade, Benson roams the streets of a Liverpool whose decline seems to mirror his own; a city filled with ‘abandoned projects, derelict enterprises, boarded-up ambitions’.

The novel has a suitably dark beginning.  Benson is walking down Croxteth Road on a February day. It is ‘a time of trouble for Benson’ – he feels silence ‘forming over him like a crust.  He can neither work nor sleep, and has taken to ‘walking around the city in an ancient overcoat of grey tweed, talking to strangers, looking for signs, portents, auguries’:

He was approaching the tall block of flats at the beginning of Croxteth Road. The white railing round the top was half lost in light, half dissolved in the blank,  milky-blue heaven of mid-afternoon. Casually glancing up into this bright zone of air, Benson saw the flash of the leap, heard a cry, but despite this thought at first it was a carpet falling, a red and blue carpet, because of the way it seemed to drift and sidle in the first moments, but then it went straight and fast and landed on the concrete forecourt with a sound a carpet wouldn’t have made. Feeling slightly sickened, Benson strove to fix the sound of impact in his mind so that he could make a note about it when he got home – he still made notes. The man was lying on his back, motionless, inside the forecourt but in full view from across the road. His face was turned aside, away from Benson, as if that mild sun were too bright.

A car had stopped farther down. A small man got out and walked towards Benson. He was wearing a black leather hat with a very narrow brim. ‘Somebody fell off the roof,’ he said. His eyes were bloodshot and sad. He looked across to where the man was lying. ‘He’s had his lot,’ he said. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’

‘Looks like it. No one else seems to have noticed anything.’

Which was odd, considering the sound, the fact that he had gone hurtling past windows and balconies. Benson too was sure that the man was dead. There was no sign at this distance of blood or damage; but he knew, he recognised, in a way at once obscure and definite, that quality of stillness, that semblance of ease. The man was strewn there, littered.

Unsworth prefaces his novel with the OED definition of ‘metaphor’, signalling a key theme.  Benson continually tries to ‘wrench the reality of things to a metaphor’.  He sees signs and portents everywhere, starting with the suicide’s leap from the tower block – a leap he interprets as a personal omen. This tendency has already wrecked his marriage, his wife accusing him of ‘trying to make people subject to my imagination, to the requirements of a story, instead of seeing them as they really are’.

So, on one level, this concerns a novelist who struggles with writer’s block, making occasional forays into the city library to pursue his research into the slave trade, make notes and ponder the moral implications of the city’s past – the slavery, rum and sugar of the triangular trade.

But it is a rum concoction, this novel. Not only do we have Benson roaming the streets with his writer’s block, falling into conversation with tramps and vagrants, we also get the high comedy of his creative writing classes, attended by his ‘fictioneers’, an assortment of aspiring authors whose hilarious manuscripts he critiques while eavesdrop on snippets:

‘She eased the implement of his power into the deepest fronded recess of her being’. There was a disturbing touch of the Black and Decker in the description of Albert’s member, Benson mused.

Alongside these scenes unfold Benson’s wartime memories of  the Anzio campaign, revivified when he encounters two fellow Second World War veterans, one a homeless alcoholic, the other a wealthy right-wing, Cheshire businessman. In a packed hall on Upper Parliament Street, a demonstration of hypnotism is brought to a suddent halt by rioting on the streets outside.  And, at  the book’s conclusion, Benson assembles an unlikely band of malcontents to bring the revolution to the sleeping burghers of Cheshire.  It’s a strange and uneven mix: readable, but nowhere approaching the standard of Unsworth’s best work.  It has a grim fascination, now, in drawing us back to the 1980s, that decade of Liverpool’s ruination.

Barry Unsworth has confirmed in at least one interview that the struggle of the fictional novelist Benson in some way mirrored his own difficulties at the time:

I used a blocked writer in Liverpool to extricate myself who was a blocked writer in Liverpool at the time. I used that. … I don’t think Sacred Hunger or Sugar and Rum would have been written if I hadn’t gone to Liverpool and I only went there because there was a post as Writer in Residence at the university. I believe I was the first and last writer they ever had; I think they ran out of funds. I was there for fifteen months and by going in I stumbled on Liverpool. As we said, I had a block and there was the slave trade interest… The focus of interest on the Atlantic trade was really accidental in the sense that I hadn’t any such interest before I went to Liverpool.

Yet just four years after describing Benson’s tribulations in Sugar and Rum, Unsworth completed the extraordinary Sacred Hunger, a towering achievement and one of the best British novels of the last 50 tears.