Saturday, 17 September 2011

Reader, I married him

One of the most distinctive one-liners in English literature, bested perhaps only by it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, and for my money a few bob higher in the romance stakes of nineteenth century chick-lit. For me, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë has somehow passed into myth. Like Arthurian legend, it's a story I've assimilated, picked up through osmosis, and now know inside out, even though - and here I curse, as ever, the drawbacks of a foreign language degree which left gaping holes in my education - I've never read the book.

I tried, once, when I was much too young to appreciate it. I was about ten, and I'd been pillaging my parents' bookshelves, which I fondly remember as being populated with obscure children's books (Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey), North American travel guides and old cloth-bound editions with the corners chewed up by our rogue standard poodle Ginny. My mum had a beautiful old brown leather-bound edition of Jane Eyre tucked away on the shelves, with what probably attracted me to the book in the first place: a sweet little bookmark with a wooden owl fastened to the top of a thin strip of leather, marking a random page.

My mother is one of those long-term, dedicated Eyreites - they're a rarer and less transient breed than the Pride & Prejudice fanatics, and I've always thought that it's a classier kind of lady who falls for a Rochester over a Darcy. Anyway, for whatever reason, her enthusiasm didn't rub off on me and I couldn't get to grips with it, and that was that. An impatience for stroppy gothic whingeing and howling ghostly apparitions meant Wuthering Heights was firmly off-limits (although I do enjoy the condensed version by Kate Bush: Heathcliffe, it's me, it's Cathy, I've come home, I'm so cold, let me in your window tells you all you need to know if you ask me), and ever since then the Brontës have remained uncharted territory for me.

Fast forward fifteen years or so and we find ourselves in the age of book to film adaptations. Like most of the fairer sex, I'm partial to a period movie here and there, especially when it's a tale as old as time like Jane Eyre, and when there's a genius at the helm of the casting decisions that means you won't be staring for two hours into faces that have splashed the tabloids so often you know them better than your own, trying to pretend that they're fictional characters speaking universal truths. 

I heard somebody's mum once say, "You never forget your first Mr Rochester." Well, I disagree. I've seen countless Rochesters grace the screen, and I really can't remember which one came first. Overplayed as the role may be, though, Fairfax really is one of the few bad-tempered, brooding, awkward, strutting, horse-riding, breeches-wearing, misty-moor-tramping, secret-keeping, mad-wife-in-the-attic-hiding literary screen heroes I can appreciate, and the most recent Rochester (Michael Fassbender, 2011) does a stellar job. What's more, the film feels just as it should, dark and austere: the only glimmers of warmth for two hours come from the dark amber glow of an evening fire and Jane's sparkling little frightened eyes (I think the mark of a good nineteenth century novel-to-film adaptation is how often it makes you wonder whether those women were actually warm enough in those thin dresses, in those big stone houses on those wild, windy moors).

But the thing is, though, I can't get away from the niggling feeling that I'm a big old fraud - no matter how much of a chord the film struck, I don't really have a right to comment until I've appreciated the story in its original form. My colleagues were horrified when I told them - our exchange on Thursday morning went something like this. Lottie: "I saw Jane Eyre last night." Natasha: "Ooh, was it good?" Lottie: "Oh my god, it was so good." Catherine: "How was Mr Rochester?" Lottie: "Oh my god, he was really fit." Catherine: "Oh my god, yeah, I know." Natasha: "What did you think of the way the film sort of plays around with the structure?" Lottie: "Erm... well, I don't know - I haven't read it." Sharp intake of breath from all in earshot. My boss, with no hint of sarcasm or hyperbole: "Lottie! Oh my god! That's terrible!" I think she considered sacking me.

Natasha said she'd lend me her copy, but she forgot to bring it in on Friday. I started to get a bit antsy - I'd suddenly got the Brontë bug and was itching to get my teeth into this one (if only because, like any self-respecting woman, I'm now a little bit in love with a fictional man). I had to take action, and spent the early afternoon today scouring every library and bookshop in the Balham area for a copy. My favourite second-hand bookshop, My Back Pages, came up trumps with a battered and rather ugly Everyman's Library edition for £1.50. I'm nervous, though - I tried it on for size once before - what if I don't like it this time? Nothing for it but to just take the plunge.

Reader, wish me luck.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Diary 2011

Tuesday, 9th August
Couldn't keep the maniacal grin off my face as we pulled in aboard the Scotrail shuttle from Glasgow. Leaving the station, I bounded up the Fleshmarket Close steps and had to stop for ten minutes at the top to get my breath back, dropped my bags off, then back up the hill to George Square and Teviot (which I stubbornly refuse to call the Gilded Balloon). Met some old friends and had a lovely picnic moment on the grass on the Quartermile with expensive hot chocolate and mango cheesecake from Peter's Yard. Put Ciaran on the train at 5pm and had a forward flashback to my own departure in under a week's time and already wanted to slow down time. Had Palmyra chicken shawerma for dinner and it was delicious.

Wednesday, 10th

Rain. Walked into town under flimsy umbrella and had a bedraggled breakfast in Black Medicine (cheese and ham croissant and pot of tea). Read manuscript. Thought that this is how I'd like my life to be. Met Corinne and we revisited old haunts - a delicious chicken wrap in Coffee etc, where we used to lounge on the sofas before lectures. Weather cleared up and we went for a long walk down the Canongate and around Holyrood. Back to base, collapsed for a while - all that walking - and finished the manuscript, which was The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue - Picador, September. (It's a saucy, scandalous Victorian era story of a loveless marriage, a steamy affair, an old friendship and a legal battle culminating in the revelation of the eyebrow-raising truths behind these seemingly prim and proper lives. A veritable bodice-ripper.) Later on, met Réjane on the Grassmarket, had delicious pizza and a carafe of wine in Gennaro's, then on to the Forest Cafe for some amazing live blues/rock n roll by The Blues Water Collective. Danced until 2am and had more Palmyra on the way home to replace the lost energy. Chicken shawerma so good.

Thursday, 11th
Met Clare at midday. It rained all morning and I got wet feet. Gobbled down a really garlicky garlic & mushroom pancake immediately before seeing first show - Mad About The Boy - recommended by Réjane and absolutely stunning. Lyrical, poetic, topical and performed by highly talented actors, a simple, low-scale production but hard hitting and pitch perfect. Bought wellies & thick socks - feet dry! Later on in the afternoon met Jonathan and he talked non-stop about his beautiful new girlfriend. Met Réjane for dinner at Mum's (used to be Monster Mash) and sat next to a very friendly couple called Sandy & Pam. Frisky & Mannish at the Udderbelly - fabulous! Pop cabaret comedy gold. Had to leave early so Réjane could catch the sleeper train and I headed straight to the Pleasance for Jonathan's show, heckles surprisingly aggressive. Afterwards, the VIP comedy bar at Potterrow (Pleasance Dome for anyone who's only been to Edinburgh in August), met Jonathan's girlfriend, who really is beautiful. Saw Milton Jones at the bar and got badly chatted up by an awkward, tartan-shirted comedian. Change of scenery at 2.30am - Teviot Library Bar, another old haunt. Stayed until 4.30am, wandered home to Charlotte Square, didn't sleep at all until 7am.

Friday, 12th
In bed all day, trying to sleep amidst the Charlotte Square traffic. Ventured out to Pret at 6pm and got a free mocha for buying so much food. Met Lisa off her train at 7.30pm, went straight out for dinner at 8pm - dodgy mussels and a green salad - then on to Pleasance for Chris Ramsay - Offermation which was brilliantly funny, a great pick-me-up.

Saturday, 13th
Left Clare's and got the train through to Glasgow with Ben to meet Mummy Fyfe and Ewen. Lunch at Brown's - rejuvenating steak and chips and a low-alc wine. Met Ross, Lynsey and baby Ella - still tiny! Later had coffee with Ben & Ewen and energy crashed. Tried not to fall asleep on train back through as had to meet Lizzie for a drink in the Brass Monkey - they've brought back the enormous bed! - I copped out and had a cranberry juice. Lovely to see Lizzie again but fear I picked her brains too much about PhDs. Tesco trip on the way home, pizza, tea, and bed. Exhausted.

Sunday, 14th

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square.

11.30am - Ali Smith.

The compere says that it is "inexplicable and perverse in the extreme" that There But For The by Ali Smith was not nominated for the Booker. This is the first time I've seen Ali Smith - I queued on the phone for an hour at 8am while I had flu to get a ticket. It's worth it, of course - immediately she is warm and funny, slightly theatrical and endearingly self-deprecating. She thanks us all for coming out so early on a Sunday morning and I think that this could be a good equivalent to church. Ali gives the compere a touching little kiss as she goes up to the microphone. She reads like she's actually telling the story - so animated and natural and just brilliant. It's a pleasure to listen to her. After she's read, she talks about the importance of puns, which feature heavily throughout the book, and says that a good pun is like a light switch going on, meanings coming together and touching each other in more than one place at the same time. Then the questions move to the unusual title and she says that the point of it is that banal words can become poetic, and in this case they also become the whole structure of the book. There's a question in the incompleteness of the title - you have to fill in the blank yourself, or if you don't, you have to wonder what it might be. It amazes me that she is so eloquent and expresses herself perfectly - she just tells you exactly what she means and leaves you in no doubt. Her book isn't "plotless," she argues, rather things have a presence in their absence (like the Cutty Sark - ravaged by fire and no longer standing impressive on the Greenwich skyline, you can't help but see it even more). You could - and should, she says - take whatever you like from a book, and it is the fluidity of her plots and her characters and the way they run the lines and run away and seep onto and off of the pages that help you to do this.

After the event I queued up for quite a while to have my copy of the book signed. She greeted each member of the public as if they were a friend. I told her she was brilliant at reading from her novels and she said she's always worried that it'll go wrong. I said I bet that never happens.


Midday - hoofed it from Charlotte Square back into town to the National Museum to see the stunning lighthouse optics on display. Also saw scale models of the Bell Rock and got some information on a model of Skerryvore which to my disappointment is currently on private loan in Argyll.

3.30pm - Kathleen Winter & Megan Abbott

I notice that the pretty girl in the cool tweed blazer I sat beside during Ali Smith is in the row in front of me at this event - we must have similar taste in books. She's writing in a black Moleskin reporter-style notebook and has beautiful handwriting (which for some weird reason always makes me quite jealous). Now I'm sitting behind her so I can sneak peeks at what she's written and see if it's better than what I've got, but she's just writing verbatim quotations from the authors. Still, it's distracting - I find myself looking over to compare my notes with hers, and I'm pleased to see that sometimes we write the same thing.

Megan Abbott is from Detroit and has the most bizarre, comedy cartoon-character accent - high pitched and saccharine with a lisp, but with those harsh Detroit edges! She reads the first chapter of her book, The End of Everything, and the words which were a little flat for me on the page totally come alive. It's set in the 1980s and is a nostalgia-struck memory of Suburban detroit, an all-American, coming-of-age crime mystery novel. It's a heady and poignant mixture written, she says, partly from experience - and teenage memories are so powerful because everything is a perpetual trauma. As a thirteen-year-old girl you're on the brink of girlhood, but you're awkward and not really quite girly yet. You are beginning to 'perform' your gender, but you are unprepared for the windows into adulthood that present themselves. Life is big, you have urges and strong feelings, everything is 'noir,' dramatic - and then something happens which brings the end of everything - in this case the disappearance of the narrator's best friend. Being a teenager, Megan says in that wonderful voice, is 'transformational.'

Kathleen Winter, altogether more severe-looking with short grey hair and glasses, but kind eyes, reads from her novel Annabel, which is utterly wonderful. The book is about a hermaphrodite, Wayne Blake, who is brought up as a boy in rural Labrador, Canada, by loving but confused parents. His mother, Jacinta, is the twinkling lights of the city, loves the hustle and bustle, the chit-chat. She is full of almost-regrets, and will always love the girl that Wayne might have been. His father, Treadway, is the country. He is taciturn, and belongs in the outdoors, out on his trapline, and knows the natural world by heart. Wayne has a golden heart and we see him through his adolescence - friendships, enemies, school days, teenage parties, body worries, pivotal moments, unfairness, and life in the Canadian wilderness. A time, Kathleen says, that for 'normal' children, is also a transition from androgynous to male or female. She explores duality and gender, and how much of our maleness or our femaleness is intrinsic, and how much is learned. We are bombarded by ideas of what we should become - like Megan said, we 'perform' our gender. Wayne has a fascination with architecture and bridges, and this in part represents a side of his identity that has nothing to do with gender roles or being a hermaphrodite, but at the same time it's an idea, a metaphor that spans and arcs the novel from one side to the other, linking, joining together, the two opposite sides of himself.

Kathleen also talks about her experiences growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the clash of feelings this evokes. She says, shrewdly, that she "loves country living unencumbered by small-town thinking." But she also loves the twinkling lights of the city, and "it took somebody to come into my world and make it bigger." This is also what happens to Wayne. There is a moment near the end of the book when I thought the whole train was going to go off the rails and the book was going to take an entirely different, dramatic direction, but Kathleen writes bravely and doesn't succumb to sensationalism, and I love her for it. Finally, she talks about the stress of ending a novel, and about how she has to set herself imaginary deadlines. But in Annabel she has written the most perfect ending I have ever read - so perfect that I can't keep it to myself:

"Treadway was a man of Labrador, but his son had left home as daughters and sons do, to seek freedom their fathers do not need to inhabit, for it inhabits the fathers."


Evening: the Camera Obscura. On one of the lower floors of the building there's an incredible visual vortex tunnel that makes you feel like you're spinning around with all these florescent lights and it's like being on Doctor Who (I imagine). The camera obscura at the top was great too - it was a clear day (I could see all the way to the Inchkeith lighthouse) and I said goodbye to my city on top of the tower.


8.30pm - Poems from Small Islands

A poetic, linguistic and cultural delight. Five poets, from Northern Ireland, Malta, Majorca, Cyprus and Lewis, went to Crear to write, inspired by their island habitats. Then they translated each others' poems into their native languages and read them to us in Edinburgh. Lovely, lovely. I've never listened to poetry being read in a language I didn't understand before, and in a wonderful way it forces you concentrate on the rhythm and the lyricism rather than the words. Afterwards, we met the poet from Lewis who looks exactly like what he is - an island fisherman - in an old woolly jumper and raggedy jeans, with bad teeth, and a vague whiff of wine.

Following this, all too fast, a last walk along Princes Street stealing longing glaces at the grey-and-silver lit castle up on its hill, arriving at the station and imprinting Edinburgh on my retinas one last time before descending with a heavy heart down the walkway into Waverley. Cramming in a hasty dinner of all that Burger King had left at 11 o'clock at night (no chips! No joke). Boarding the sleeper train and finding, to my horror, that my reclining seat didn't actually recline very far. Realising that it was probably a mistake to think that I'd be fit enough for work at 9 o'lock tomorrow morning.

11.15pm - sleeper train departs. Until next time, windy city.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


A Japanese girl, fashion-conscious in a light blue pencil skirt and a wide-brimmed hat with a red ribbon, bending down to try and get her sunbathing friend in the frame, laughing, swapping cameras, and doing it all over again.

A tall, brown-haired, brown-booted girl with a sensible ponytail, part of a small group, with an incongruous baby-pink camera swinging from a long grey cord down beside her sturdy, tanned legs.

A group of middle-aged visitors milling around, stopping, oblivious, pointing-and-pressing, the arms of their jumpers dangling down from their backpacks.

A solitary, smart figure in a sharp black blazer with a compact silver number, well turned-out with a pretty cream shoulder bag - she's interested in the architechture.

A little boy in a fluorescent orange t-shirt trying to figure out the functions, while his family (older brother, much taller; parents in their forties) gather round to witness the results - he tips it upside down, now they're moving on and it's swinging from his wrist.

A professional photographer in a grey t-shirt and knee-length black shorts taking expensive-looking shots of three women in three different bridal gowns, their backs to me, resting between the double columns of the Old Royal Naval College.

I've come to Greenwich today and forgotten my camera. It has lain dormant for so long that I wanted to give it, and me, a refreshing little outing, but halfway down the Northern Line I read these words: "Dr Lioukras had a little camera he was always using" (Annabel by Kathleen Winter) and I remembered, too late: Camera. Shit. Still at home, where I left it.

There's masses to photograph here, if you want it. I'm lying on a lovely cultivated lawn, a kind of square, between the four buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, underneath two identical domes atop identical colonnades stretching all the way in front of me to Greenwich Park in the near distance. I'll go and explore these buildings in a little while, but for the moment I'm just enjoying being in their presence.

More than anything I love to just be among beautiful buildings. I think this is why I detest day-to-day life in London so much - most of it is overcrowded, run-down and ugly (at least the parts of it that I can afford to be in). For years I have been spoiled by the smoke-blackened grandeur of Edinburgh's run-of-the-mill architecture - and by "run-of-the-mill" I mean that Edinburgh is effortlessly beautiful, so it's no big deal to find a charming close or a gorgeous, jagged vista.

Used to this kind of thing, I feel a sense of entitlement left painfully unsatisfied by the red brick terraces of Tooting Bec. But though beautiful buildings are a necessary element in my life and it's stifling to live in a city where they are always at least a train journey away, they are not what I really like to photograph - though I am admittedly annoyed at myself for leaving home without the necessary equipment. While it would have been nice to open my maritime scrapbook (a current fascination, and more on this later) with some artful shots of the colonnades and the spindly, sky-reaching masts of the Cutty Sark, the latter has, heartbreakingly, been gutted by a fire and is closed for restoration anyway. What I'm most upset about not being able to capture on film is the fascinating moment when you catch somebody else taking a photo. The concentration is almost ridiculous - face pointing, squinting upwards in awed appreciation, a modern-day ritual, proof of pilgrimage to this historical site or the next, an imprint of a moment, a statue, a dome, a ship, saved forever in your memory chip, ready to call up at will at some later date and remember what a lovely day out it was.

I suppose I'd have been doing the same thing in their shoes - I'm a tourist today too - but luckily, I've forgotten my camera.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Taking Care of Business

No nonsense today, just books. Though I'm currently in the throes of an interesting historical and literary obsession which I'll pen down later for your amusement (or boredom, who knows), I haven't yet languished in it enough to be able to share it with the world - unless you're unlucky enough to be my similarly book-crazed flatmate, or ask the fateful question, 'what are you reading at the moment?' Then it's a different story...

But no, I promised not to waffle this time, so I will do my utmost to be concise. Alors... the best thing I've read so far this year is Great House by Nicole Krauss. First of all, this woman's a genius. She has lots to say, and she says it well. I bought her book in hardback for the considerable sum of £20 on the back of nothing more than the interview with her in The Guardian that I mentioned in my last missive. This was a chance encounter that has changed my life for the better: I happened to enroll at my local library last week and I'm so taken by Krauss that I've now picked up her first novel, too (it's a sad day when you realise you can't afford to buy as many books as you want to read. Thank God for libraries). I love discovering a great writer I never knew about before, even if it reveals me to be a little bit of a philistine, and this time I'm determined to actually follow through and read her backlist. I always tell myself I will, but in practice it rarely happens. It seems I've got a short literary attention span.

But back to the book - on an aesthetic level it's hard to beat. It has a beautiful, bold cover, inscribed with fine, white-line lettering that takes up most of the space without being overpowering. Picking it up is almost like holding a piece of smooth, red wood in your hands. Its title comes from the Talmud and suggests to me a piece of writing of unfathomable depth, with hints at complex, Freudian ideas of the self represented by the house; living space and furniture; how much of ourselves and our lives we store in these things...

Sounding heavy? Don't be put off: this book needs weighty ideas to hold it all together. Its narratives are fragmented, fractured and disjointed. I tried in vain to get each and every strand to fit together before realising in defeat that they're probably not supposed to. It's like Faust: Part Two - you're never going to get a cohesive narrative or thematic structure out of it, so the best you can do is grasp at strands of meaning and tease them out as far as they will go until you've made the best sense you can of the whole mess. In Great House the pieces of the jigsaw are expertly arranged, though, so that you come away feeling that you've delved deeper into the characters' lives than a lesser writer would have allowed in the space of these four stories. It's a weighty, serious and brilliant novel. Spend the silver, read the hardback.


Another high point: earlier in the year I read The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, and I've just spent the last ten minutes scrolling through Bella's blog when I should have been writing my own. It's very good - go here if you're interested. She has the rare gift of writing beautifully yet accessibly, and I love this book mainly because, reading it on the tube - that necessary evil of London life, and oh, how evil it is - I was transported, alternately, to my two favourite places in the world: Scotland, and Germany. With a setting that flits between Bonn (OK, so I've never been to Bonn, but a trip to Berlin does feature too) and the Outer Hebrides (Okaaay, so I've never actually been there either but I've been to Skye, have family on Lewis and if I win the lottery I'm going to buy Taransay), it's a cracking story, fabulously well plotted with lovely child-characters, sadness, happiness, love, plenty of magic and metaphysics, and to top it all off, a healthy dose of espionage. And it made me yearn for heather-strewn, wind buffeted shorelines, peaty moors and three o'clock sunsets. Blissful reading.

"have you ever been to berlin in june? they say no-one gets up 'til noon, and the streets are lined with cafes..." (Alice Gold, Runaway Love)

I promised myself a while ago that I'd read the second instalment of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin novels, Goodbye to Berlin. Although I'd purchased it a long time ago and it had gathered dust on my shelf since then, it was only after the recent BBC drama about the author's life - you might have seen it - that I decided it was high time to get down to it. I'd been so slow in putting off the moment because I strongly suspected that its pages were going to be so richly rewarding that I wanted to revel in the anticipation for as long as possible. Well, if there ever was a book that didn't disappoint, it's this one. You know when you unwittingly link a certain song with a certain period of your life purely because you happened to hear that song a lot back then? Well, now, for the same reason, I find myself unable to disentangle the tinkling melodies of the abovementioned Alice Gold track with images of the decadent, frivolous affairs of Herr Issyvoo in 1930s Berlin... and perhaps, I concede, the memories of my own sunny summer in that balmy city, too. He's such a refreshing writer, because most of what he writes concerns real people, friendships (fond ones, if fleeting), tongue-in-cheek accounts of shady characters, and the odd subtle nod at mounting political turbulence. He writes episodes which entertain thoroughly, and never hides that this is their primary intention. Yet they still manage to leave behind such a credible impression of the spirit of the age and capture a moment perfectly.


And now, a comprehensive about-face, to true stories about addiction, of which I seem to have read quite a few in the last weeks. Namely Dry by Augusten Burroughs and Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn. Let's start with the former. I wasn't convinced at first by Burroughs' overly wry tone and cynical, just-this-side-of-self-deprecating attitude. But he's very funny, and I really enjoyed another memoir of his, Running With Scissors, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he writes very conversationally so it wasn't hard to power through. In the end, I came to appreciate his detached stance regarding his own experiences with alcoholism (which include some tragic moments) and in hindsight I'm relieved that he didn't get bogged down in hyperbole because, as immediately ingratiating as that kind of misery memoir may be, it's emotionally exhausting and leaves you pretty empty anyway (think along the lines of A Million Little Pieces by James Fray, which I'm allowed to slag off because some of it isn't even true). Instead, Burroughs levels just enough of an expose upon alcoholism and its ill effects without getting his hands too dirty; he hits a good enough balance between cool criticism and impassioned tale of woe for my liking - so he gets the thumbs up.

And now swiftly to the latter. Some Hope has three parts, and chronicles Patrick Melrose's life from the age of five to the age of, I suppose, thirty-five. Focusing on a drunkard, neglectful mother and a sexually abusive father, it tries to encapsulate a highly obnoxious section of the upper classes and paints a picture of a troubled little boy, understandably at odds with his surroundings, who grows up into the dark depths of heroin addiction. I felt it failed as an expose of despicable English snobs because I was as disgusted that anyone would want to write about these people as I was to read about them. I really struggled through part one, but something (I'm not quite sure what) made me keep going. It got better, and I really enjoyed part two, although mainly for its gratuitously detailed descriptions of the sensory overload of shooting up smack, which I'll probably only ever experience vicariously through literature and therefore find weirdly fascinating. Part three was sort of a culmination in which our antihero moves on to better ways and better things; there is consolidation and a cathartic revisitation of old friendships and relationships touched upon in parts one and two, and a cloying sense of retribution against the memory of the nightmarish father figure. All a tad predictable if you ask me... yet I don't want to finish on a negative note, so I will say that the author displays an uncanny talent for intricate, surprising, beautiful and amusing metaphor, which is admirable in itself and a good enough reason to give this book a go.

Until next time. 

Saturday, 7 May 2011

That's Entertainment

I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to reading material, but every so often I really fancy a glossy magazine. I’ll buy one, justifying the four quid by telling myself that I don’t do this very often, and binge on the whole thing in a couple of hours. Drink it in and get high off the headlines and shiny pictures of beautiful people, skim over the text, let myself be shocked at the real-life stories, occasionally admire the quality of the investigative pieces. Inevitably, though, and inexplicably, I get to the end and feel like shit, like I’ve just scoffed something hideously unhealthy, like an enormous big mac and fries, with extra mayo. A guilty pleasure? Perhaps. But against my better judgement, I still subscribe with the rest of them to the braying beast that is celebrity worship.

Rationally, I know that people who have glamorous jobs (like, say, movie stars) are still just people doing jobs. When you’re an insider in an industry, it loses its sparkling sheen. Even something super-fun, like going to a party, can become a chore: as soon as something is obligation, it is no longer recreation. As a lowly outsider, though, on the rare occasion that you are granted a golden pass into an unknown and exciting world, it’s a thrilling yet thoroughly weird experience. You think that because the world of celebrity already exists in your imagination, in reality the doors will open up and you will be welcomed into the fold in all its shining glory. But when did reality ever stand up next to imagination and come off favourably?

Once upon a weekday evening, my oldest, wisest and most glamorous friend, the most social butterfly you’ll ever meet, called to tell me that she’d got herself and a plus one onto the guest list for a super-cool, hip film premiere after-party in central London, and did I want to go? I accepted with gusto. ‘I hope it’s not a let-down, but it won’t be what you expect,’ said the friend, who hobnobs and schmoozes with the papped echelons of society on a regular basis. I thought to myself: Of course it won’t be a let down. I mean, how could it be a let down to spend the whole evening schmoozing with glamorous and exciting celebs? Which of course, we will, as they'll all be dying to talk to normal, run-of-the-mill down-to-earth hanger-on types like us. I didn’t say this, though. I said: ‘Of course it won’t be a let down. Even if we catch a sideways glimpse of some celebrity or other, it’ll totally be worth it.’

Weirdly, though, at the venue, the celebs weren’t waiting by the door to welcome us in. It was nearly empty, despite the fact we’d hung around nursing rum-and-cokes in a bar across the square so as not to arrive too early. There was free champagne on the door, though – Piper Heidsieck, no less – so we settled in, found a spot, pretended to chat and generally hung around waiting for the beautiful people to arrive. As the place started to fill up, I became aware of this tense, electrified atmosphere in the place, and no wonder, I was radiating it myself: anticipation. It was weird, though, my friend was right. Imagine the scene: Monday evening, you’re out in Leicester Square drinking free flutes of Piper, and everyone knows you’re really there for some other reason than casually meeting up with your mates. At some point during conversation you might become aware of a fleeting presence, a flitting movement of a beautiful rare celebrity bird on your periphery, moving in and out (mainly out) of your vision.

The evening wore on, and ever so slowly, a tinge of disappointment that the famous people didn't appear to want to say hello began to set in. But my friend is a good friend, and a stellar journalist. She pulled her press card, which bought her a whole half-minute of empty chit-chat from some slick actor or other, while I did absolutely nothing but grin like the village idiot at her side, struck dumb by nothing other than the aura of celebrity. At the time I was gliding along in a haze of bright lights and having a jolly old time but looking back, it’s fair to say that, given my talent for the verbal at most other times, be it idle prattle or thoughtfully-constructed argument, I’m ashamed of myself for allowing myself to be rendered so dumbstruck. Finally, slick actor flitted off into the fray, never to be seen again… well, perhaps glimpsed out of the corner of your eye once more, but this time well and truly off-limits, for once they smell The Press on you, you’re dutifully granted your thirty seconds, and then you’ve had your chance. Time’s up, and they won’t go near you again.

So I got to thinking… mass entertainment. What an industry. I think I’d find it exhausting. It’s exhausting when you’re riding the wave, and it’s heartbreaking when you come down off it and realise that normal life is waiting for you to stop your silly daydreaming. You might get lucky one night and find yourself at an event where they dish out Piper Heidsieck to their guests, but you still have to run to make the last tube home. The further down the Northern line we ricketed, and the more I fell back into my own hum-drum life, the more I felt it all enveloping me like an old, moth-eaten and holey, but ultimately comfortable and familiar blankie (curled up on the sofa with a bowl of cereal and the Saturday morning cartoons). I began to think that I’d rather live a boring old life that meant something to me than a rockstar lifestyle devoted to giving other people little invented snapshots of yourself that require little to no effort, and around twenty seconds, to digest.

But the purists such as myself are always moaning about how these days everything is geared now towards our goldfish-bowl attention spans. We want everything bigger-better-faster-brighter at our fingertips, infinite choices and opportunities, the ability to skip from this thing to that thing at the touch of a screen or a moment’s thought, and we’re losing the ability to engage with things properly. And by ‘things’ I don’t mean 'content' – it drives me so mad, that phrase engaging with content. Do you digital wizards even know what those words mean? In reality, they just mean “looking at a screen”. Don’t you ever find yourself bemused, watching someone engaging with content on the train, and wondering how a person can become so completely vacant and devoid of all expression, utterly transfixed and transported by his little screen? I know I’m, like, seriously behind the times and more than a little snobbish (and of course I have double standards - I also wrote this on a screen) but I just find it all so funny and bizarre, and sad. We don’t even read properly any more – we look at gadgets. As Nicole Krauss brilliantly put it this interview, we don’t even turn the pages. We press a button which turns the page for us, and now all that’s left of the simple experience of turning the page is a little mechanical noise.

I didn’t really mean to veer off on a tangent of the anti-revolution there, but it probably all adds up to the same thing. I’m not very modern; I’m staid, a traditionalist – some might say boring. I didn’t mean to, and I definitely didn’t set out to, but I soon found myself making comparisons between that celebrity encounter and the kind of events that I usually find myself at on weeknights. Literary salons, book launches, Q&A sessions. All pretty bog-standard for somebody who works in publishing, but I genuinely love this kind of stuff. It doesn’t have to be dull. I’ve seen Alan Bennett reading onstage in Trafalgar Square, and heard Philip Pullman doing the voices of Lyra and the armoured bear. I’ve heard the first three pages of the new (unpublished) Bridget Jones straight from the author’s mouth, and had a conversation about book covers with Geoff Dyer. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just a totally different world. It might not be superficially as satisfying as coming face to face with someone you’ve seen eight feet tall on the silver screen, but I find I am much more impressed on a deeper level by celebrity of the literary kind. I might get all flustered when confronted with someone off the telly, but I’m truly awestruck when I meet a writer I like. It’s brilliant, there’s nothing like it, and the main reason for this is (and I realised this had bugged me all along about the fame racket) that you can actually talk to these people. You don’t get fobbed off with some cover story, something someone’s made up so that they make a good impression when you write about them. You’re allowed to have opinions, share ideas, or just chit-chat and get along, and when a writer you love listens to something you’ve said and reacts (either positively or negatively), it’s gratifying on such a different level to the temporary high you get from coming into contact with the stars.

But let me just get down off my high horse for a minute – because let’s face it, there’s literary snobbery around in spades. These days I seem to move in circles where people say things like: ‘There’s something so cool about realising you’re at a party snorting coke with Bret Easton Ellis.’ I mean, really? God forbid I’ll ever be impressed by that kind of talk. You get used to your circle, though, and probably become impervious to its flashier sides – the flip side of doing coke with Bret Easton Ellis is proof-reading his novels for grammatical errors, I suppose, or losing your job if you don’t sell enough of his books. My glamorous celebrity-spotting friend is really an award-winning young journalist who happens to work for a glossy magazine, so the kind of celebrity event that would get a pleb like me all hot under the collar, she takes in her stride all as part of a day’s work. A few months ago, I hadn’t seen her for a while and suggested we meet up that weekend, to which she replied that she couldn’t, she had to work. On a Sunday, I protested? Yeah, she said, I have to go and cover the BAFTAs. Sorry – can’t really get out of it.

The BAFTAs? What a nause.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Taking the literary huff - and a book to justify it

A couple of weeks ago I found myself dismally entrenched in the depths of the foulest mood to descend upon me for quite some time. Those who know me will testify that this must have been a sight to behold - behold, that is, for mere miliseconds before scarpering, sharpish, if experience was anything to go by: other people don't fare well in my company when I've got the huff. Nine times out of ten, it's something utterly banal which causes the storm clouds, such as arriving home late from work to a kitchen full of dirty dishes (or worse, a dishwasher full of clean ones) but on the evening in question, I had a much more literary grievance.

A little bit of background narrative, if you can stomach it: as a young, highly strung and admittedly slightly odd outcast bookworm with an English accent growing up on the feral west coast of Scotland, I believe my parents used to Worry About Me. Not because of my stubborn reluctance and/or inability to pander to the whim of the popular boys and girls and therefore the inevitable torrent of spit-wads I used to get in the back of the neck on the school bus home, rather I think they probably thought I spent too much time on my own, shut away in my sanctuary with my Doors CDs and the heating on. But then, if I was looking at hanging out with the prehistoric spit-wad kids as an alternative, who would blame me?

Social ineptitude aside, most of the time I wasn't actually on my own up there - chances are I had my "head in a book" - and if my head was in there, then the rest of me was as well. If they thought I was taciturn, reticent and - dare I say it - grumpy, it was probably because I'd been forced to abandon my quest to the North to discover the meaning of Dust, rescue the Gyptian kids and reinstate the true leader of the armoured bears, to be called downstairs for something as inconsequential as dinner where I was abruptly shunted back into the family pecking order. Worse, though, was when I actually finished whatever I was reading before tea, because then it was as if somebody had died. I was grieving. I didn't want to talk about it:

"What have you been up to up there in your little cave?"

"Nothinggg, Muuum!"

And I didn't want to dodge my brother's whip-crack tea towel manoeuvres. I just wanted to be left in peace to wallow in the fleeting but intense sense of loss I'd suffered - after all, I'd bested the cunning Mrs Coulter with these people, my new friends (shame you couldn't make any real ones, I hear you snicker), traversed a twinkling bridge to a city in the sky with my Daemon - and now, suddenly, brutally, they were gone. (For the purposes of my argument, let's just ignore the fact that the example story is part one of a trilogy).

Don't worry, patient reader, this long-winded tale is approaching something along the lines of The Point. Recently, I suffered a terrible loss, and it shook me up so badly that I was incapable of sensible interaction for a good couple of hours. I was in such a huff after turning the final page at having to leave it all behind that all I could do was frown, gnash my teeth and grunt monosyllabically at any who dared to cross my path. What master storyteller could have produced such a tome? Well, joking aside - seriously - please, go out now and buy Ours Are The Streets by Sunjeev Sahota and read it, and when you're finished, if you can bear to part with it, give it to all of your friends.

Before I read this novel, I'd had a little bout of reader's block. Nothing stuck; everything was lacklustre. Either that, or I'd tried to take things on that were too ambitious (like W G Sebald's Austerlitz whilst lying incapacitated with what I retrospectively suspect was swine flu). I felt parched, desperately in need of refreshment, but a few things put me off before I'd even started. Aesthetically, it's eye-catching, but not particularly pleasing or easy. It's jagged, grabs you, with its dirty brown cover, large gashes of red Arabic script, streaks of ragged black type and vaguely threatening yet elusive teasers daubed into the background in harsh white. Inside, as well, the largish point Times New Roman typeface looks kind of haphazard and unfinished. Call me shallow, but I judge a book by its cover and for all these reasons I expected something less than what was delivered. I also found the title vaguely repellent with, it seemed to me, its suggestion of exaggerated hipness, its allusion to modern times. Looking closer, though, the sludgy background of the paperback jacket interestingly reveals an urban vista nestled behind the lettering which is so clearly shot that you feel like you should recognise it, even though you know you don't...

So in I dove, more out of a sense of duty for reading our list than anything else, and contrary to my expectations I was caught, hook, line and sinker before fifty pages (for the bibliophobes among you for whom fifty pages sounds like a lot to read before you know whether you like a book or not, it's not - good stories are woven with care, precision and patient thought). And Sahota plays the long game. He starts at the end and takes us all the way back to the very beginning, filling in all the blanks of this extraordinary story in a spartan, raw prose written in colloquial Sheffield dialect - at first this was midly irritating, then bemusing, and finally indispensable - it's exciting to realise how necessary this kind of detail is in creating plausible, believable characters - likeable, even. Sahota is truly a magician; on our turbulent cultural and political stage, I never imagined a writer would possess the power to draw me in to the (albeit literary) mind of a Muslim jihadist and make me like him.

Inflammatory subject matter for the sake of it is something that really disgusts me, particularly if it's overtly topical, which is why I was delightfully surprised to find that nothing in this story is there gratuitously or simply to shock. As all the best ones are, it's really a love story. Or rather, a story about love - its delights, surprises, pitfalls, failures and, finally, destructiveness. Family love is there as well - the painful bonds of love and loathing between father and son, set against the backdrop of English immigrant culture (first and second generation), which somehow mutate into a dreadful, destructive need to find some kind of nook to feel safe in, no matter how crooked. And then, as well, the whole thing is an introduction into what is still for me an alien culture - in the form of a trip 'home' to Pakistan, where English-born Imtiaz is supposed to feel like he belongs but really spends most of his time trying to prove to the others that he's worthy of their regard, as a foreigner. Just like anyone, he's desperate to belong in the group, and he'll go to quite some lengths. His drifting into a more dangerous kind of religious fervour is a barely perceptible shift (you only twig when he returns to 'Sheff' and his young wife is shocked and recoils at his kurta and beard). You realise that you've been drawn into it, too - the streets of Sheffield seem grey and bleak next to the richness and warmth of the family home in Pakistan. Even though Imtiaz plays an important role in the terrible, terrible things which happen there (which, when you step back and observe are so foreign and frightening that it gives you a shock), somehow there is a sense of unity in it all; his family, his friends, their shared experiences - until again, with a shock, you realise what they are all intending to do together.

(Warning, spoilers!)

Finally, Sahota maps a psychological demise that is tragic, because you've come to love and pity this man, even though you know he's going to become a killer. And the conclusion becomes terribly, sadly inevitable, for Imtiaz more than for anyone else - that's the persuasive power of the narrative perspective. But Sahota, with his master pen stroke, retains such control, resisting veering into the sensationalist, and instead finishing on a profoundly calm and touching note - quite at odds with the reality you know might have just exploded in an oblivious, crowded place somewhere.

The rather grating tagline of this novel reads 'the story behind the news story'. I found this at first too mass-market, too attention-grabbing, too cloying. But this novel really does fill in the blanks missing from those people whose grainy pictures we look at in the paper and think that there can only ever be evil there. How can a human being think of destroying themselves and others so deliberately and hatefully, you ask yourself when you look at those faces. This novel is fiction, but it engages an obscure part of your imagination, as if flexing muscles you didn't know were there, and for the first time goes some way towards providing a shade of an answer.