Zack is a crawler. He’s been crawling all his life. He has an instinct for it, a skill for cancelling out all those sucking noises you make when your palms and knees rise out of the mud. He has an ear for the ditch’s subtler traffic too: the bubblings, chitterings, chuckles and gasps, the slow drownings and the unexpected surfacings.
Zack’s ditch - sometimes a tunnel, sometimes a corridor or a blood-drenched capillary - leads us through a warren of memories and current experiences, from the surrealism of childhood to the baseness of his present life - the breakdown of his marriage and his petty acts of revenge against his wife Elinor.
John Latham’s first novel constructs an Escher-like maze of what ifs and what nows. Thronging with characters, many of who play only bit parts in Zack’s actual life, this is a journey through the unattended subplots of our lives, the on-going narrative that subconscious itself weaves together.
John Latham is a research scientist who has been awarded several medals by the Royal Meteorological Society, and was for 8 years President of the International Commision on Atmospheric Electricity. Born near Liverpool, he held a chair of physics at the University of Manchester (UMIST) until 1988, before moving partially to the US, where he is presently a Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. He is also an acclaimed and award winning writer. His plays and stories have been broadcast on Radio 4, and his collections of poetry include Unpacking Mr Jones, From the Other Side of the Street, All Clear and The Unbearable Weight of Mercury (all published by Peterloo Poets).
‘Spectacular writing, with lines that hang around in the mind long after you’ve read them’
Talking Books: City Life enters the subterranean world of John Latham’s Ditch-Crawl
What’s it about?
Latham’s first novel is surrealist, experimental fiction so answering that question isn’t as easy as you might think. On one level, it’s about a man, Zack, crawling through a ditch. On another, it’s about Zack’s exploration of his subconscious. There’s also an above-ground story: Zack has been divorced by his wife and seeks revenge by diluting his excrement and stirring it into her tea. Not exactly cosy reading but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Says Latham of Zack’s darker side: “I have known male friends who developed extreme jealousy, particularly over sexual stuff. They were people who otherwise seemed to be kind, decent, gentle, and yet when they were spurned, they were totally out of control. I wanted to create a character who had those qualities, yet wasn’t without the hope of redemption.” When Zack meets Alex – a young woman disturbed by childhood abuse – it looks like redemption could have arrived. She and Zack become awkward lovers and companions on the tentative, dreamlike journeys along the ditch and into their pasts. Strangely, this intense, sometimes shocking book has its origins in a light-hearted joke played on an American friend of Latham: “He was teasing me about the odd habits of the English and he asked what English people do an Saturday afternoons. I said, ‘they all go crawling along ditches with lights on their heads’. He swallowed it, and I developed the idea as we talked about it.”
What about the author?
Multi-talented Latham is an established poet who combines writing with working as a research scientist. Based in Warrington, he was a professor of physics at UMIST before partially moving to Colorado to work at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research.
Is it any good?
The cover describes Ditch-Crawl as ‘adventurous’ reading – and if you like easy-read stories with characters firmly located in space and time, you might initially find it challenging. But persevere because it quickly becomes engrossing – both above and below the ground. The poetic preciseness of Latham’s prose brings a nightmarish clarity to the surreal childhood memories and the shady atmosphere of the ditch. Even if you’re not feeling particularly adventurous, you are advised to don kneepads and a hard hat and start the crawl.
Sarah Tierney, City Life magazine