Sunday, May 01, 2005

i've read it in books

*sigh* I wasn't going to do this.

There's this 'my favourite books' meme going around blogs at the moment, and the final question is 'who do you nominate to do this next?'.

I got nominated by Jim Bliss. Whilst I'm flattered by what he said, I thought I'd leave it. Jim seems one of the best-read people I've ever met. His number one book is Ulysses for fuck's sake. He's one of the two people I know who've ever managed to finish it. Me, I've never dared try to start.

I'm probably the worst-read literate person alive. There was a point a year or two ago where I think I was writing more than I was reading. Reading books, like having a job, is one of those activities that everyone seems to do and I just don't know where they find the time.

I manage to finish about one book out of six that I start. I hardly ever read fiction, so my knowledge of literature is sporadic, haphazard and frankly not worth a great deal. I'm way more likely to have my nose in a Marvin Gaye biography than A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man.

As my dad says, the saying 'everyone's entitled to their opinion' is simply not true. An uninformed opinion is invalid. If you don't agree, next time someone dear to you needs surgery, whose opinion on the procedure would you be inclined to follow, mine or the trained surgeon's?

Whilst there may be, say, some sculptures I like and I'm entitled to my feelings about them, I'm not equipped to talk about sculpture in general. I'm in the same position with books relative to pretty much everyone else I know.

But then I just got nominated again. And it's in one of those things that makes a blogger's heart melt; someone I've never met or communicated with who already links to my blog, and their explanation of why they like my writing is a description of everything I'd hoped I could achieve with it.

because the books he talks about on his blog all strike me as being of vital importance, and because he seems to be doing all he can to free himself and others from injustice, absurdity, violence and ugliness in this troubled world, and he opposes these things using positive actions.

So, Helen from Take Every Day As It Comes, Brothers And Sisters, this is your fault. Bless you.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

It's an enticing angle to ask from. A simple 'favourite book' would be stale and, crucially, not quite the same question. The last book question I liked so much was being asked 'what book would you recommend for everyone to read'; great angle isn't it? Not 'favourite' or 'best', but something that has a universality and accessibility for all kinds of people, but still something real to impart that everyone could benefit from.

For that one, I answered Is That It? by Bob Geldof. So much about commitment, passion and the unending process of learning from your life and the lives of those around you.

But on the Farenheit 451 thing, I have two lines of thought. My first impulse is to take something nobody else is likely to have memorised so that it will be preserved. I mean, there'll be hundreds of Nineteen Eighty-Fours out there, won't there? Ditto Vonnegut's novels.

Whereas I'm not sure anyone else would go for Martin Millar's stuff. He writes wonderfully dry, funny, melancholy witty novels of the giro generation. It's tough to choose, he's pretty darn consistent. Milk Sulphate and Alby Starvation? Dreams of Sex And Stage Diving? The subtler cleverer Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me?

Nope, at the end of the day despite one or two of the others probably being objectively better, I'd go for Ruby And The Stone Age Diet.

A friend gave me Ruby in 1990. She'd been lent it and said I'd love it. I started it before going to bed one night and just couldn't stop. Despite having to get up for work at 5.30 the next morning, I read it straight through. Then the ending so goosed me that I sat there for as couple of hours unable to sleep. It was so downbeat, so uneventful, so realistic, similar to the end of Nikita or the way Woody Allen ends Manhattan and Celebrity. It's way more shocking than neat resolution with all the ends tied in.

It's that realism in describing what are actually extraordinary lifestyles - sprinkled with twists of magic - that makes Millar's work so great.

Thinking about it, there's a lot of parallels between Allen and Millar. If Allen was a Glaswegian living in Brixton in the 80s and 90s into squats and drugs and punk, that is. The wit, the whirly melancholy/romantic mix.

I lent that copy of Ruby to a friend. He lent it on, and it never came back. So I had to buy a new one to give back to the person who'd lent it to me, to give back to the original owner. The fact that all copies I know of were read and lent on and on and on speaks for itself.

But anyway, here's what I mean about my randomness in literature - like Iain Banks, Millar also writes fantasy novels (as Martin Scott). Have I read any? Have I read his adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma? Like fuck have I.

When I was recently dumped a beloved friend advised me to turn to Ruby And The Stone Age Diet.

No need to be telling you to get hopelessly drunk and listen to music for days on end.You've probably already been there. 'Ruby And The Stone Age Diet' helps.Page 64 if I remember correctly.
How splendid that she's so very literary and so very goth that off the top of her head she would remember the page number of the most miserable part.

[The narrator and friend have been dumped.]

Cis shouts my name through the letterbox and I run down the hallway to open the door.

There is no-one there. I have imagined it all.

'Why are you wandering naked in the hall?' asks Ruby, her lilac dress crumpled from sleeping in it.

'No reason'

'Make me some tea'

I put on a pot of water. We have an electric kettle but we are having trouble paying our last electricity bill.

The God Of Foolish People Who Walk Around Naked In The Hallway Thinking Their Lover Is Shouting Through The Letterbox is called Alexander and really there is nothing good to say about him at all. He is more of a demon than a god.

His brother is called Philip The Terrible and he is responsible for delaying people's giro cheques in the post and sending out electricity bills that no-one can afford.

Yesterday Ruby and I spent four hours wandering Brixton trying to accidentally bump into our lovers but my plan was a failure. We met neither Cis nor Domino, despite calling into every place where they might be.

'Sometimes it's difficult to manufacture coincidences,' says Ruby, sharing a drink with me before closing time. 'A pity. I would have liked to fuck Domino right this minute.'

'We could try again tomorrow.'

'It won't do any good,' says Ruby, morosely. 'Nothing does any good. You fall in love with someone and they leave you and you feel like dying. You meet their friends in the street and you tell them how unhappy you are and you hope this news will get back to your ex-lover and they'll take pity on you. Or else you meet their friends in the street and you tell them you're having a great time and you hope this news will get back to your ex-lover and make them jealous. You think about things you could have done and what you would do differently if you had the chance, you wait for the phone or doorbell to ring, you hang around the fringe of conversations hoping to hear some snippet of information about how they are.

'You can write poems and send them or not send them, you can turn up drunk at their house and plead with them to come back or turn up drunk and pretend you don't give a damn, you can send flowers or love-notes or a few intellectual books, you can discuss it endlessly with your friends till they're sick of the sight of you, you can think about it all day and all night, imagining that somehow your mental power will win them back, you can sit on your own and cry or go out and make yourself frantically busy. You can think about killing yourself and warmly imagine how sorry they'll be after you do it, you can think about going on a trip round the world and probably when you got back you'd still hope to run into them on the street. You can do anything at all and none of it is any good. It is completely pointless. Lovers never come back. You can't influence them to do it and you would realise this if only you weren't so dementedly unhappy all the time.'

The pub is noisy with little room to move, and we have to guard our drink against a marauding barman who keeps trying to snatch it off the table even though there is a good half-inch left at the bottom.

'So we won't try again tomorrow?'

'We might as well. What else is there to do?'

Anyway, despite all that, I don't think I could go for Ruby. I acquiesce to my second line of thought on contemplating the question. I think I'd want to pass on something equally humane but a damn sight more useful. George Orwell's four volume compilation Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism

Orwell is my main man. I love the clarity, the way he doesn't let the literal inaccuracy of a generalisation stand in the way of making a good point, the way he was unafraid to change his mind and explain why, his commitment, his scathing wit, his will to really roll up his sleeves and get into the cogs and gears of social mechanisms and see how to engineer change.

His Collected Essays Letters and Journalism is especially enlightening because unlike the proper books it wasn't written with an eye on posterity. Much of it was written either as private letters or as quickly turned out pieces for magazines. Book reviews paid the bills in the Orwell house, and he often used them as a platform for a superbly insightful rant some distance from the subject of the book he was ostensibly reviewing.

Reading about the 1930s in words written at the time is very different to the modern stuff; in the differences we see how we've been emasculated by a sense of inevitability and fatedness. But in Orwell's contemporary writings, the Spanish Civil War is still fresh, the communists in the UK are siding against the non-Stalinist troops, the Second World War isn't inevitable, sympathy and indifference to the rise of fascism are widespread. There's everything to play for, and in this there are parallels with politics today and clues for wise action.

Is it cheating to pick a four volume set as my book? Hey, at least I wasn't smartarse enough to be the staggering 20-volume £750 Complete Works of George Orwell, a collection so mighty it leaves out only one known piece of writing he ever did (KGB archives won't let it go apparently), and putting it together left the compiler needing heart bypass surgery.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Nope, although I have been powerfully persuaded to share certain viewpoints. I love how Cis in Ruby and The Stone Age Diet has her hair in a bleached crop, but is described as one of those people who'd look great whatever she did with her hair. Better, 'one of those people you see once in the street, then think about once a week for the rest of your life'. That one was so good I nicked it to describe Cas in my book.

(That was an entirely gratuitous mention of my book just to make Jim Bliss feel better - see his nomination of me for more info)

The last book you bought is:

Bought, you say? I buy a tiny minority of books I get. I tend to avail myself of the poor security arrangements at corporate bookshop chains. I recently got three copies of Colin Tudge's So Shall We Reap so I can give them away to friends. It's the most important book I've ever read.

Oh, actually since then I've got Mark Lynas' High Tide: News from a Warming World. It doesn't argue that climate change is inevitable. It demonstrates that it's already here. Only read the intro and am already astonished and horrified. And yet still they launch the largest passenger aircraft in history.

The last book I actually bought was The Lorax and Oh, The Places You'll Go! from a charity shop in Bradford about a month ago. I got copies for my nephews last christmas, and I'm sure I'll find happy homes for these copies. They're as good a welcome and motivation for newcomers to earth as I can think of.

The other main method of acquisition is loans and gifts. I just got given The Closed Circle, Jonathan Coe's sequel to The Rotter's Club. Enjoyed the latter immensely, although for me What A Carve Up! shines above the others of his I've read. It's combines great tenderness with a detective story and an intelligent fury against Thatcherism. But it might be cos it was the first one of his I read.

When you get your first book by a great writer or your first album by a great band it often stays your favourite. Subsequent stuff is sort of more of the same, whereas that first one opened out that whole world to you.

Iain Banks said that if Complicity - an superb novel, btw - had been his first book it'd have cause much more fuss than The Wasp Factory. Similarly, Ruby's the Martin Millar I plumped for, and asking other people they always love their first Millar the most, but if it were given a single transferable vote system Dreams of Sex And Stage Diving would win, it's everyone's second or third favourite. It's got a clearer moral than the others, and could even bee seen as heavy-handedly doing so, but it's a book with lofty aims and hilarious sleaziness.

Criminally, the miserable fuckheads at Fourth Estate have let Millar's stuff go out of print. He's talking with his new publisher, the excellent Codex Books - who also do the essential A259 Multiplex Bomb "Outrage" by Simon Strong - about reprints. I will try to stop talking about him now. I think you've got the point.

The last book you read:

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker. A dark twisted macabre short story, very vivid, great savouring use of florid language. And all helped by hearing it in your head in Baker's voice as you read. Him and Stephen Fry, the best speakers of English I can think of.

Oh, Fry was simply born to be the voice of the book in Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy. The movie's pretty good. Like Shaun of The Dead, it manages to be intelligent yet lightweight, a perfect day-after movie; playful with ideas, but no matter how munted you are you won't be bewildered.

What are you currently reading?

I start many more books than I finish. I don't know if I'm going to get any further for a long time. There's usually several such books on the go at any one time. By my bed at the mo (apart from the concise Oxford dictionary which lives there permanently) are:

Julian Cope's The Megalithic European, a stunning continent-wide companion to The Modern Antiquarian.

How To DJ Properly excellent, very witty and in a field that invokes pretention, egotism and wilful mystification of technique more than most it's very clear, down to earth, accessible and encouraging.

Norman Davies' The Isles: A History, a big fat history of these islands that is, for once, from something like a balanced perspective. Simon Schama's 'A History of Britain' was largely actually just a history of the English monarchy. The BBC website for his TV series had a link to English Heritage but not to Historic Scotland or Cadw.

The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest. It's a compilation of writings from throughout the century written at the time, mostly by the actual people involved in assorted struggles. Though the title aims a tad higher than it delivers, being very much from a British political perspective.

As with Orwell's thing, writing from the time is very instructive for its freshness and its urge to make changes that aren't yet inevitable/lost. Keir Hardy, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Trotsky, Thatcher, Tony Benn, Malcolm X, Hitler, Germaine Greer, Haile Selassie, Che Guevara, Churchill, Arthur Scargill, Gloria Steinham, George Monbiot. Hell of a book. I love the format; it's dip-in-able without being superficial.

That's a quality we consciously aimed for when we set up the Godhaven Ink writing/publishing coolective; a way of writing that was intelligent, inspiring, informative, substantial in content yet concise.

Maybe it's the punk ethic of DIY and brevity. Growing up on punk, glam rock and 60s pop I got steeped in a value system that said 'make your point well, memorably, then shut up'. Anyone can find a good idea somewhere in a 17 minute guitar solo, but to set up, declare yourself, put a twist on it and leave all in two and a half minutes - and all in a way that sticks in your head even if you only catch it once in passing on the radio - now that's talent.

As Woodrow Wilson said, 'If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.'

And on a related tip, as Orwell himself said, 'never use a long word where a short one will do'.

Five books you would take to a desert island.

I strongly dislike the use of 'desert island' as an image in this type of question. Most of the books, records and other cultural items I love resonate deeply because they help me make sense of this life. They equip me for a future in this culture, they embolden my heart to stay robust for the challenges this society gives me.

There'd be little point in having lots of songs that help you cope with the complexity of human relations if there were no more humans with which relations were being had.

I think a more accurate phrasing - but more unwieldy so I don't expect it to catch on - would be 'if you were only allowed to have access to five books for the rest of your life what would they be?'

That list would look like this:

1. The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope.
A huge book in size, scope and effect. Over 300 British Neolithic monument sites documented, and so much more. But for all the good the gazetteer has done to get me properly out of doors, the real power is the hefty wodge of visionary writings that aim to understand why . Why these places were built, why it's still relevant and how we got from then to now.

These monuments aren't from a Golden Age, they're the beginning of humans insisting on leaving their mark, on reshaping the world to suit them, the beginning of alienation and neurosis; the farthest back where we can understand the psyche of who we're dealing with and the start of modern humanity.

Stunningly set out in thought and visually, this inspired work isn't like anything else you've read. A book that, in every sense, makes you see the world a different way.

2. Ruby And The Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar.
The best book for someone like me, a relentless soppy realist dreamer from the Thatcher era.

3. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
Could have been a number of his. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is often overlooked, Timequake grossly underrated, Slaughterhouse Five and Slapstick are bona fide masterpieces too, but in the end it's this one that contains all of the greatness of those and more.

Playful with ideas in a way that only a writer who came of age in America's mid 20th century sci-fi years can be, Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut firing on all cylinders. Warm and deeply compassionate, it encourages a tenderness in the reader, you can feel your hard scales of cynicism dissolving.

4. Love by Mahalia.
Is it bad form to pick a book I had a hand in publishing? Well why the hell would I be publishing something that's not astonishing, that's like books already out there?

Love is an unusual format - mixing short stories with poetry (but don't let the p-word scare you) - and mixes scouring emotional honesty with subtlety, an uncommon intellectual perspective and laugh-out-loud wit, always seeing deeper meanings and resonances in human interaction. The workings of the heart told in scenes lit with a light as stark and precise as a laboratory, yet as mysterious and enchanting as a full moon.

Egads! It's got to be one of my beloved dip-inable compilations, but which? That Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest is the likeliest candidate, but really, to the exclusion of John Pilger's Distant Voices ? Vonnegut's Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death? Or, if this is a Desert Island Discs style thing and money's no option, that complete Orwell thing that chucks in all the novels too? Can I?

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Step on up,

Green Fairy - The first blog I ever got into, and still a big favourite. She combines political intelligence and eloquence with caustic humour, and you know she couldn't give a monkey's what anyone thinks of her writing.

Miss Badger - Discovering each other through a mutual love of Green Fairy and badgers, she's a clever unashamed feminist and we so need a lot more of those around the place.

Uncarved - Culturally, John's a tireless observer, commentator, catalyst and instigator, and brings so many diverse strands to his mix that he's bound to put you on to good things you've never come across any other way.


Anonymous said...

i really need to get a copy of 'and so shall you reap' - i suspect it will be preached to a converted badger but would like to read it anyway - i haev also started reading vonnegut on the recommendation of both yourself and another of my friends who is a huge fan - so far i have read 'deadeye dick'(loved it) and a short story collection called 'welcome to the monkey house' which short story of the same name is very good - i will be starting slaughterhouse 5 tonight!

merrick said...

miss badger - Don't knock preaching to the converted! It's what makes the converted feel stronger in their faith, and that's what gives them the strength to go out and make new converts.

But anyway, in the case of the Tudge book I defy anyone to not come away knowing a hell of a lot of new facts, with a lot of new clear analysis.

On the Vonnegut front, Deadeye Dick is good, but there's a sort of darker slower quality to his 80s books. Galapagos is based on a single idea really. It's a great and very important and relevant idea, mind.

You can't really pick a duff one (with the posible exception of the rather staid debut Player Piano), he is an incredibly consistent writer and the same character shines through in everything he's done.

Slaughterhouse Five is the Classic, the one everyone mentions first and indeed it is an amazing book, but i do feel there were other works where he was less burdened and reached higher.

John Eden said...

oh blimmin 'eck ;-)