Archive for the ‘literature’ Category
A right Charlie wrote this, which seems to say something about the year we’ve just gone through:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
The Charlie in question was Dickens, written in 1859 about 1775 in A Tale of Two Cities.
I read A Tale of Two Cities between May 1989 and January 1990. Much though I loved it, I can be a slow reader. The story is set in the run up to and during the French Revolution. During the 9 months it took me to read the novel a number of actual revolutions broke out across Europe from Poland to Turkmenistan, Hungary to East Germany. The book sits on my Shelf of Honour:
This review originally appeared on A Penguin a Week.
|Cover design uses still from the MGM movie ‘All Fall Down’.|
“Tomorrow I’m going on a health binge, get some filter cigarettes and start doing push-ups every night. Maybe I’ll do some right now, to make myself sleepy. Because I’ve got about forty-seven big knots in my chest, and they hurt.”
When I pick up an old Penguin I’m hoping for a surprise – something off-beat, long neglected, out of left field, a lost gem. ‘All Fall Down’ delivered.
It’s the first novel from the Detroit writer who went on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’ five years later in 1965, James Leo Herlihy. It’s a coming of age story in the heritage of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a decade in its wake. It follows the growth of Clint Williams from an isolated, uncommunicative 14 year old to an emerging adult with the capacity to care and love.
A fair proportion of the story is told through Clint’s diary – it’s like an external hard drive he relies on to compulsively capture memories and documentation from his chaotic family life. He steals his mother’s private letters (outgoing and incoming) to copy into this notebook which he keeps tucked in his trousers, right against his flesh. It’s the one place he controls and to which he can bring some degree of order.
Clint’s hero, his older brother Berry-berry, is absent for much of the story, on his low-life travels around the USA, much of the time just one step ahead of the law. Yet his being has immense gravitational pull on the family. The disparity between what mother, father and little brother hope for from Berry-berry and the real man (in as much as he is grown up) is the source of the all-round disillusionment which engulfs the family.
When the Williams move to a new house across the city in Cleveland, Ohio, the cracks open up. Berry-berry takes off before he’s even spent a night in his new room. The father, a former left-wing activist, spends his time in the basement doing puzzles. The mother immerses herself in domesticity on the ground floor, while Clint eavesdrops from the laundry chute upstairs and records the exchanges in the diary which he “made use of … with an unconscious ease similar to that of walking or feeding oneself”.
Clint, in an attempt to come to the aid of the older brother he idolises, goes on a road trip across the country to the Florida Keys. He loses his innocence along the way when he is sheltered by Shirley, a young tart with a heart, whose inner beauty and profound loss influence Clint for life.
The person who catalyses the final destruction of both the dysfunctional family and their illusions is the unmarried daughter of one of the mother, Annabel’s, friends. Echo O’Brien is a dynamic young woman, very attached to her perfectly preserved 1929 Dodge touring car. Tall and slender, she could, in a parallel universe, have been in the pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Think ‘Gatsby’ and Tennessee Williams for the kind of tension Echo brings into the Williams household as she becomes the object of both Clint’s innocent, tender love and Berry-berry’s careless lust, the latter returned to his home city and the proximity of his family, but living on the edge of town with a dark secret.
Watching Berry-berry live a lie and talk up his hollow, self-centred life, gradually grinds away at Clint’s hopes and illusions. Like Holden Caulfield’s obsession with ‘phoneyness’, Clinton Williams can’t take the lies: “I just stayed there at the table and thought about what big liars we all are”. Berry-berry tells his biggest, most unforgivable lie at the climax of the novel and it is this which finally severs his bond with his once adoring brother. Berry-berry ultimately cares only for himself and loves no-one, not even himself. Clint though has a great capacity and desire to care and cherish. His growth into adulthood is complete with the realisation that “[in] the difference in the love offerings people make to one another, lay the reason for all the pain in the world.”
First published in the U.S.A. 1960. Published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1962.
I’ve been noticing coincidences a lot recently, and noting some of them down. Mainly of the type where you hear a word for the first time in decades and it comes up again the same day.
But today I had a cracker. I went to Church Hill near Letterkenny to visit Glebe House and Gallery. As luck (or the tourist season) would have it was closed so I contented myself with hanging out in the gardens by the lake, which I had entirely to myself in strong spring sunshine. I laid on the damp lawn and took out my two books. The first one I opened was ‘Human Chain’ by Seamus Heaney, a book of poetry my Other Half gave me for Christmas 2010. I’ve only ever read a couple of the poems so I brought in with me for this Derry-Donegal trip. I read a bit of it last night so it was parked up randomly in the middle wherever I happened to get to.
As I opened it and started reading today stretched out on the grass like a dying naturalist I wrote a note at the top of the page in pencil as a souvenir of where I was:
16.3.16 Church Hill – Derek Hill’s
Derek Hill was the artist who used to live in Glebe House and bequeathed it.
The poem I had got to last night was entitled ‘The Baler’, about a mechanical hay baler. When I got to line 19 who, of all the people in the world, is mentioned?
Derek Hill. I’m not sure if it’s the same one but it probably is.
But what I also remembered
Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch
The sun going down
What are the chances?
I finish the night before at that particular poem
I decide to go to Glebe House this particular day
I write Derek’s name
The name is printed on the very page
Doesn’t that mean there must be a God? 😉
Apparently I registered with WordPress 9 years ago today. How time flies. I’ve got to fly myself now (to Bournemouth to drop off Enfant Terrible No. 1, which is a far more important landmark) so this is a quickie to reflect on the statute of limitations on titles. I’ve written before on the importance of titles such as in Starless and Bible Black.
Any way, it looks like 56 years is the statute of limitation in the world of Anthony Horowitz / James Bond / The Fleming Estate. The title of the new, just published Bond book is Trigger Mortis. The book below was published in 1959 and it’s also a thriller.
By the looks of things, the covers are far superior to the contents. Whether that’s the case with the new Horowitz book, I’ll find out soon as I broached it last night. Its cover is well designed and cool but not much fun, promising something very different to Frank Kane and Johnny Liddell. The title’s crucial. and so is the cover/image. That applies equally to other media such as the one I’m currently focused on: Short Form Video.
I marked the 10th anniversary of our old slippers of a book group by listing all that we had read to that auspicious date. The personnel is remarkably stable, adding members very rarely, so to herald the arrival of my friend Martin Bright I am updating the list:
- In the Country of Men – Hisham Matar (Jun 15)
- The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell * (Apr 15)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Mar 15)
- Oblivion – David Foster Wallace (Nov 14)
- The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Sep 14)
- What Was Promised – Tobias Hill (Jun 14)
- Stoner – John Williams * (Apr 14)
- Rabbit at Rest – John Updike *** (Feb 14)
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro (Dec 13)
- May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (Nov 13)
- Irretrievable -Theodor Fontane (Sept 13)
- Wise Men -Stuart Nadler (July 13)
- Bring out the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (March 13)
- Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers (Jan 13)
- There’s no such thing as a free press – Mick Hume (Dec 12)
- Love and Summer – William Trevor (Nov 12)
- The Uncoupling – Meg Wolitzer (July 12)
- A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 12)
- Nemesis – Philip Roth ** (April 12)
- Old School – Tobias Wolff (March 12)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (Jan 12)
- the first ten years
Today is Record Shop Day. I’ve been frequenting mine (Alan’s in East Finchley) plenty recently so I’m just making an internal nod to indy record shops and I’ve just played a classic record Spiral Scratch by (the) Buzzcocks (albeit not on vinyl, I’m in the wrong room) – the track I played is Boredom because I’ve been thinking about it a lot yesterday and today.
I’m living in this movie
But it doesn’t move me
I’m the man that’s waiting for the phone to ring
Hear it ring-a-ding-a-fucking-ding
You know me, I’m acting dumb
You know the scene, very humdrum
Boredom, boredom, boredom
I was just out jogging, listening to a podcast with Irish writer John Banville talking about Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. Banville, under his low-brow pen-name Benjamin Black (which I don’t much like – as fake as they come, a bit like Julian Barnes’ Dan Kavanagh), recently wrote a Marlowe book at the request of Chandler’s estate, The Black-Eyed Blonde. Marlowe stories usually start with the gumshoe sitting bored in his down-at-heel office waiting for something to happen, usually a dame walking through the door to give him a knight-errant mission.
Then late last night I was listening to a radio programme from BBC Radio 4 called The Buchan Tradition about John Buchan, marking the centenary year of The 39 Steps. Richard Hannay is bored in London at the start of that ripping yarn when lo and behold a spy dies on his living room carpet and the adventure begins.
That’s also often the case with Sherlock Holmes – he’s bored out of his brain, coked off his face, ennui has well and truly set in when a character shows up at 221b with a juicy mystery to solve.
One of my favourites, a resident of The Shelf of Honour, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, opens with the protagonist bored in the “dead and fermenting city”, London in the dog-days of late summer. When the opportunity crops up to sail around the Baltic and North Sea coasts, in spitting distance of imperial Germany, with an English eccentric in an Aran jumper, it’s the perfect cure not just to boredom, but also to the complacency and materialism of modern life. One of my favourite scenes is when Carruthers, the narrator, can’t fit his trunk through the opening into the Dulcibella, the boat he is due to go off for a trip in and he has to dump most of his stuff (which he never really needed).
Recently I watched again one of my all-time favourite movies, Apocalypse Now, with Enfant Terrible No. 1 (a convert to The Godfather movies). Damn it’s good. Great. Nearly perfect. It opens with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) bored to near-death in a hotel room in Saigon. Waiting for a mission.
Saigon…shit. I’m only in Saigon.
Every time, I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.
I’m here a week now. Waiting for a mission. Getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush…he gets stronger. Each time I looked around…the walls moved in a little tighter.
There’s boredom as debilitating ennui as in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. But there’s also boredom as a motivator, a prompt into adventure. The question is whether in real life the blonde walks through the door or the spy expires on your carpet? Does the ring-a-ding-a-fucking-ding really come?
I’ve been in a book group with some old school friends and a motley crew of other geezers for 13 and a bit years now. Here is a summary of our first 10 years. Well it’s my turn to choose the book again now – it takes 18-24 months for the honour to come round these days so you can’t take it lightly. I put a call out to social media friends for books that had really changed their lives or ways of seeing the world. Loads of interesting suggestions came in and rather than let them fade away in the ephemeral world of Facebook etc. I thought I’d save them here so other people in other book groups/book clubs/reading groups could make use of the titles. (The quotations are from the friends making the suggestions.)
- Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson
- Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
- A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
- My brilliant friend – Elena Ferrante
- Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
- Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane
- Don de Lillo’s Underworld
- Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
- Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels – “made me think differently about how the past shapes your present/future and how as individuals we get to choose if the negative parts of our past consume our futures or not. It is also beautifully written and made me revisit poetry too.” “it is the book that taught me how beautiful words can be”
- Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
- The social animal – David Brooks
- Do No Harm – Henry Marsh
- Andre Agassi’s “Open”
- The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities
- Us – David Nicholls
- Amongst Women by John McGahern
- Malloy by Samuel Beckett
- The Master by Colm Tóibín
- The Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien
- Foster by Claire Keegan
- At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien
- The Quest for Corvo – AJA Symons
- Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
- Birchwood by John Banville
- How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston
- The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
- Love’s Work – Gillian Rose
- The History of History – Ida Hatemer-Higgins
- Inventing God, Nicholas Mosley – “felt my mind shifting on religion/geopolitics/Middle East. God as the greatest invention of humankind. Humanist but generous to those who have faith – a gentle riposte to the Hitchens/Dawkins approach. In a novel.”
- A window for one year – John Irving
- A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving – “love, friendship and sacrifice”
- Wild, Cheyl Strayed
- Dracula – Bram Stoker
- The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- For whom the bell tolls – Ernest Hemingway
- To the End of the Land, David Grossman
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – “felt the terror of teenage girls when read and re-read both as a teenage girl/40 yr old woman”
- The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – “felt the power and grace of the quiet man”
- Things Fall Apart – Chinwe Achebe
- Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother “Made me respect young people more”
- A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
- The Mezzanine by Nicolson Baker “It’s very short, very unlikely and some in the group will HATE it and for others it’ll change the way they look at the world around them. You’ll never see perforations or a straw in a fizzy drink the same way again.”
- Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman – “had a huge influence on my going to university and recognising the need to never find oneself in a position where you are wholly reliant on a man. All teenage girls should read it.”
- William Leith’s The Hungry Years “taught me how not to be a food addict”
- Cervantes’ Don Quixote “taught me to rely on my inner compass rather than external signage.”
- Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow “showed me that our personal interpretation is where the colour and joy of the world are to be found, but to keep it just shy of solipsism”
- Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book “became my personal cultural key to unlocking New York”
- Stoner – John Williams
- Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse “made me see my middle class/ inner animal struggle in a clear & cleansing light, Damn you Herman Hesse!”
- Plumed serpent, D. H. Lawrence – “opening to the mythic underbelly”
- Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ “because his characters are so compelling and so flawed. Our heroine’s youthful arrogance and stubbornness sees her turn down suitors because she values above all her freedom, only to find herself trapped in a way she could not have imagined. I was excited at her prospects and I feared for her. There were other characters I was rooting for too! Having re-read it more than 20 years later, I was interested and surprised to find I had more compassion for some characters I disliked intensely and impatience for those I felt sympathy for when I read it as a teenager. A truly astonishing, complex masterpiece.”
- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “is the most piercing book I’ve read. The description of the trials faced by the father and son has stayed with me for years.”
- 1984 – George Orwell – “”We are the dead” “You are the dead” stopped me in my 13 year old tracks. Never saw it coming”
- Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day – “because it really does require you to take a big chunk out of your life to read it – Rams home the idea that reading is subversive: stops you working, earning, socialising and kinda does stop time.”
- A fraction of the whole – Steve toltz
- Douglas Coupland’s ‘Microserfs’
- Be Here Now – Ram Dass
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
- The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
- The english and their history by Robert tombs – “Amazing and definitive book that filled in every gap for me in understanding where we live and why it is how it is”
- The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom “Despite the title, it’s a real page turner. Yalom goes back and forth between Spinoza and Rosenberg (part of Hitler’s propoganda machine). My book club had a fantastic discussion.”
- Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
- Humanity: A Moral History of The 20th Century by Professor Jonathan Glover
- Lolita -Vladimir Nabokov
- The Bone People by Keri Hulme
- Homage To Catalonia – George Orwell
- The Unbearable Lightness of Beingby Milan Kundera
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle -Haruki Murakami – “Extraordinary writing that made me see the world differently”
- Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
- Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
- House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
- Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Again, thanks to all those who kindly contributed to the list.
In the end I opted for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (partly because I thought Cloud Atlas was something pretty special). Will report back on how it goes.
A friend of mine, Carol, (aka The Naked Novelist) via my bestman Stuart, passed on a challenge this week: to list the 10 books that have had the most impact on my life. So that’s impact, not my favourite 10.
Here’s my stab at it…
1. ‘Here We Go’ – the Janet and John book I learnt to read with: “Look, Janet, look!”
3. ‘Paradise Lost’ Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent – the poetry’s pretty damn good but the footnotes were a revelation – it helped me realise school subjects are artificial divisions and everything’s connected to everything else. “Of man’s disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree…”
5. ‘The Dinosaur Strain’, Mark Brown – got me into the subject of Creative Thinking, led to me making a computer game (MindGym) and ultimately to writing my own book about Creativity, ‘When Sparks Fly’ (5/8 finished, interviewed Jamie Oliver for it today)
6. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakey – emblematic of the year I had an inspiring teacher (English teacher of course – Mr Fitch RIP MA Cantab) who got me really reading
7. ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, Erskine Childers – made me realise what a burden material possessions can be in the scene where the protagonist can’t get his trunk into the sailing boat and has to dump all his shit on the quay
If it’s not too Neknominate, please do share your Top Impact 10 below (or a link to it)…
Can you imagine the looks on the two teenage faces when their mother tells them that she is going to invite people round to the house every eight weeks to sing in the back room …and say poems …and read stuff? WTF?! And she wants you boys to join in. You can just listen but you’re to be there. WTFF?!! On Saturday night the second such session took place. Enfant Terrible No. 2 engineered a sleep-over. No. 1 actually showed his face at the end after a no-show eight weeks earlier.
Here’s what was on the menu…
Una opened with a Spring theme reading Wordsworth’s Daffodils. The next morning this Wordsworth quote arrived by serendipity in my InBox (7th April being his birthday, in 1770):
The best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.
Later she read one of her own poems, Bodies, a moving and intimate Heaneyesque account of dressing her father’s body for his wake. Towards the end she read another of her pieces, Underground, inspired by a Northern Line encounter and written on the spot.
Here are two of my own recent Northern Line encounters:
For my contribution this time I read one of my favourite posts from this blog, Starless and Bible Black, and then the passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses to which it refers. It’s when the two protagonists have an outdoor piss together under the night sky, all done in the form of a catechism, and containing that very special line:
THE HEAVENTREE OF STARS HUNG WITH HUMID NIGHTBLUE FRUIT.
At the first session I read the opening of the first chapter of my book in progress, When Sparks Fly, about Allen Ginsberg. I concluded with a Ginsberg poem referencing the same incident mentioned in the first line of the book.
Joyce linked nicely to the next person up, an actress specialising in Beckett (who was Joyce’s secretary) – she read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot (whose masterpiece, The Wasteland, was published seven years later in 1922, the same year as Ulysses).
She also recited from memory a brilliant poem of her own about her days as a ballet dancer and how that went down in the Midlands of Ireland. And as if that wasn’t delight enough, she sang a powerful Sinead O’Connor song (from Universal Mother I think). And then a song in Irish about a boy from Loch Erne (Buachaill ón Eirne).
All the music and much of the rest of the singing came from our friend Patmo and his gee-tar. Highlight for me was a song about the potboy in the Dorset Arms in Stockwell where we used to go to watch Patmo and his band The Stone Rangers play. It’s called Put one in the tank for Frank and celebrates plying the late lamented Frank Murphy with beer to get access to the storeroom with all their gear in it. He also played Una’s favourite of his songs, A Little Bit of Lace (as immortalised on Adie Dunbar and the Jonahs’ Two Brothers), as well as some classic singalongs from Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon to John Denver’s Country Road (some painful, submerged teenage memories there from the height of the punk era but surprisingly enjoyable all these years later).
Our old friend Roddy read from a great early 60s first edition he has of Brendan Behan’s Island, a beautifully illustrated (by Paul Hogarth) travelogue around the old country. His other half, Alex, also by coincidence a former ballet dancer, read some Yeats love poetry (it was an evening of the Irish reading the English, and vice versa – perfect to herald the week which sees poet and president Michael D Higgins making a state visit to London, on the very day (8th April) Gladstone presented his first Home Rule Bill to Parliament in 1886). Alex closed proceedings with a parting shot of Dorothy Parker.
All in all, a pretty darn good evening (and that’s not counting the Connemara whiskey and fresh homemade soup).
Dorothy Parker, when asked what she’d like for breakfast…
Just something light and easy to fix. How about a dear little whiskey sour?
Another bitty day but progress was made. Kicked off with some Channel 4 work looking forward to to 2014, meeting a sports presenter to further develop a really interesting idea we began kicking around a couple of months ago. From there I walked along a golden Malet Street past the University of London to the British Library where I installed myself in the Anthropology Library to work on the music project prompted by my interview with Jon King of Gang of Four yesterday. Got a few ideas down to start to set the scope and whacked them over to my radio friend. Then settled down to process my notes from the David Amram phone interview last night – mainly making sure it’s all legible in the long run.
Finished off my initial research into Sylvia Beach over a bowl of hot Greek bean soup in RADAland, sitting next to two glamorous, screwed-up actresses discussing boyfriend trouble and CBT experiences – in other words, very good quality eavesdropping material. The Beach research touched on her time in Savoy and mentioned Chambery where I went to university for a year, a not oft-mentioned town.
Once back home I gave Malcolm Garrett a ring to set up an in-person interview with him about Tony Wilson & Manchester. Malcolm, who I know through working together on the BAFTA Interactive Entertainment committee, is the excellent designer behind the Buzzcocks record sleeves among many others, so first entered my life in the form of the silver and orange cover of Another Music in a Different Kitchen which delighted the teenage me. Rounded off things by getting in touch with Barry Miles, biographer and friend of Allen Ginsberg.
Took off for Chalk Farm on that note, the work day ended, to see the opening of an exhibition of photos of Andy Warhol (who I loathe and consider the opposite of Ginsberg – I wrote a scene about their meeting out back in a New York club where Ginsberg cut the twat neatly down to size in his own gentle way) and Edie Sedgwick (who, from the vaguest memory I have of the book I wrote about her – oops, Freudian slip, read about her I consider somehow tragic, like Basquiat and all the other cowardly damage Warhol left in his wake). It was at my friend/associate Alex Proud’s gallery in The Stables, an extravagantly large space, not really the right shape but different and fun.
From there to the 10th anniversary party of mySociety, a digital agency I admire hugely which is why I sacrificed the Channel 4 Christmas do to it (which was conveniently and teasingly beside the Stables) and trekked off to Mozilla in St Martin’s Lane to see Tom Steinberg and crew. And that I’ll leave for my next post…