Archive for the ‘Classic Books’ Category

The Old Curiosity Shop

December 20, 2019

One of my fun reads this year was D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory which is his history of writing and publishing since WW1. It’s a witty and enjoyable read, although for me the book was a bit of a letdown as it has absolutely nothing about Brutalism and 3:AM magazine, a glaring omission that I trust Taylor will rectify in future editions.

Taylor is a critic of the twentieth century old school. From his point of view, writers like David Mitchell and Zadie Smith are still ‘fashionable younger voices’. Martin Amis merits only a handful of mentions – which is interesting because his novel The Information is set around the same period of time when The Prose Factory tails out. Both novels in their way are a tribute to the twentieth century book world. Each takes you into a vast untidy cathedral of printed words.

The Information‘s Richard Tull is a one man prose factory. As well as complex modernist novels – for which he can’t find a publisher – he writes reams of copy for an obscure journal and also book reviews, on an almost daily basis. Significantly, the books Richard reviews are all lengthy biographies of twentieth-century, old school writers and critics. Richard’s life is books: ‘He had books heaped under tables, under beds. Books heaped on windowsills so they closed out the sky.’ His desk is a world in itself: ‘schemes and dreams and stonewallings, its ashtrays, coffee cups, dead felt-tip pens and empty staplers… books commissioned yet unfinished, or unbegun.’

It’s in the section on The Little Magazine, where Richard is literary editor, that Amis shows his debt to and affection for the old school publishing world. He evokes a world of ‘Dusty decanters, hammock-like sofas, broad dining-tables strew with books and learned journals: here a handsome philanderer in canvas trousers bashing out an attack on Heinrich Schliemann (‘The Iliad as war reportage? The Odyssey as ordinance survey cum captain’s log? Balderdash!’); there a trembling scholar with 11,000 words on Housman’s prosody (‘and the triumphant rehabilitation of the trochee’).’ One of Richard’s many unwritten books is a biography of one of the magazine’s legends, R C Squires, a real twentieth century character who was in the Spanish Civil War and pre Nazi Berlin (‘whoring in the Kurfürstendamm and playing pingpong in Sitges, as Richard had learned, after a month of desultory research.’) Amis is so taken with The Little Magazine that he features it in a short story, ‘Straight Fiction’, set in a parallel reality, and I like the idea of Little Magazines sprouting up all over the multiverse, like the magic shops in Discworld.

Richard is a throwback, but he thinks of himself as a pioneer. In his head he interrogates ‘the standard book… not the words themselves that were prim and sprightly-polite, but their configurations, which answered to various old-time rhythms of thought. Where were the new rhythms – were there any out there yet?’ And yet writing and publishing is changing, just not in a way an old school writer might like. While Richard’s novels are out of print, his oldest friend Gwyn Barry has recently found unstoppable success with his Amelior series. Gwyn has embraced the corporate and identitarian world with these novels: while Richard bangs on about the universal, Gwyn feels that ‘the art lay in pleasing the readers.’ Richard is recruited to write a profile of his old rival, and has to follow him around on an American book tour while trying to plug his own latest novel, which he sells out of a burlap mailsack. Critics at the time felt that the American section of The Information killed the flow of the book – but I’d argue that the US section is important because it emphasises the new world of corporate publishing that emerged from the ashes of the twentieth century cathedral of words.

Gwyn is praised for the plain writing and ‘deceptive simplicity’ of his novels, whereas Richard comes to feel that he is just too ‘difficult’ to make a living as a writer: ‘if you do the arts, if you try the delirious profession, then don’t be a flake, and offer people something – tell them something they might reasonably want to hear.’ And it is true that it is harder to make a living as a ‘difficult writer’ and time has been called for the old style literary magazines. I’m thinking here of this wonderful Little Magazine esque passage from Taylor:

Chief among these was Panurge, edited by the novelist John Murray from a farmhouse seven miles outside Carlisle, which managed twenty-five issues in a combative career that extended between 1984 and 1996. Although it published a fair amount of criticism and reportage, from the very first the magazine specialised in the short story; the more obscure the author the greater the chances of him, or her, being published – ‘brilliant work by people you’ve never heard of’ as one of the early editorials put it, with further showcasing of little-known talent provided by occasional anthologies (see Move over Waxblinder! The Panurge Book of Funny Stories, 1994) and compilations. If Panurge had a weakness, whether edited by Murray or, between 1987 and 1993, by David Almond, it was that very few of these discoveries went on to make distinctive careers…. [Murray] signed off with a bumper valedictory number nearly 100,000 words in length, arguing in a final editorial that such cottage industries were no longer economically viable, calculating that he had managed to pay himself £11 a week during his time in the editorial chair and thanking his wife, whose full-time job had kept him afloat.

A lost art. But is it any longer true that modernism and difficulty have been frozen out? Richard Tull would surely have applauded Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which consists of a thousand-page single sentence, sold well and was shortlisted for the Booker. Paying journals are hard to come by, but there are plenty of new indie publishers who are happy to shake a tin in your face via crowdfunder, a Little Magazine ethos in the digital age. The old curiosity shop will darken its windows but never really close.

Great Unwritten Books

October 27, 2018

I am always trying to break new ground as a book blogger, but all the titles I write about are commercially available. Today I thought we’d do something a little different, and discuss books that were only ever published in fictional worlds or alternate universes. This is the list I have come up with – I hope you enjoy it – MD

Night Journey, Hugo Driver 

Never published in the real world, Driver’s novel was a cult success within the narrative of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club. Driver’s book emerged from the legendary Shorelands writer’s retreat in the late 1930s. It was the kind of novel that obsesses people, and defines lives. There are even ‘Driver houses’ where people live as Night Journey characters for months on end. The action of The Hellfire Club begins when protagonist Nora Chancel investigates the Driver mythos and finds that Driver – not a pleasant fellow by all accounts: fellow author Creeley Monk described him as a ‘nasty sneak’ – may have plagiarised his great work from somebody else. Nora plays a dangerous game because her entire family’s reputation is built on Night Journey‘s success.

Driver’s story itself is a mystical adventure story featuring a child who is rescued from death and taken to a fantasy world by the mysterious ‘Green Knight’. Parts of it are excerpted throughout The Hellfire Club. I’ve read some of Straub’s early stuff and I suspect that Night Journey was the epic book Straub had tried and failed (particularly in Shadowland) to write – the book that takes us to ‘the heart’s glade, where the great secret lay buried’. But The Hellfire Club is an underrated classic, a novel about literary rivalry which is genuinely thrilling, scary and compulsive.

The Runner trilogy/cycle, John Rothstein

I’ve touched on this briefly before, but Rothstein is the most interesting of Stephen King’s many invented novelists. He wrote an Augie March style trilogy about young iconoclast Jimmy Gold and the Runner books follow Gold’s journey from wild child to suburban complacency. Following the trilogy’s success, Rothstein retired to live a recluse’s life in New Hampshire, where he wrote two more Jimmy Gold books – available in a very limited edition of a few dozen Moleskine notebooks buried under a tree somewhere near Massachusetts. King might have created Rothstein as a composite or satire but he can’t help his natural talent and affection seep into the glimpses we get of Rothstein’s prose. The lost Runner manuscripts would tempt any serious reader, though mostly not to the extent of shooting the author dead.

Untitled, Richard Tull

Tull’s early novels fell off the radar as they were too considered too ‘difficult’ for average readers to cope with. Instead of caving in to market pressure, Tull doubled down with this modernist classic. Untitled features ‘an octuple time scheme’ with a ‘rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators’ – the prose is so complex that it proves literally unreadable: early readers succumbed to migraine headaches, vasomotor rhinitis, and organic lesions. (James Diedrich, in Understanding Martin Amis, says this is autobiographical – apparently friends of Amis felt sick and headachy after reading his drafts. It seems likely because so much of The Information is autobiographical and lines from it keep coming up in Amis’s personal reflections elsewhere.) Tull comes to believe that Untitled is ‘clearly and entirely hopeless as a novel’ but I feel he was too hard on himself and the book could easily find a home perhaps at an indie press or very highbrow commercial publisher. There could even be an element of masculine competition as critics risk their health to plough through the book. Can you get past page nine?

Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, Adrian Mole

The trunk novel to beat all trunk novels, Lo! explores ‘late twentieth-century man and his dilemma, focusing on a ‘New Man’ living in a provincial city in England’. Originally written without vowels, Lo! was described by a Faber reader as ‘a most amusing parody of the English naïf school of fiction.’ Mole believed it was more than that and while I don’t think Lo! would ever be a GCSE set text as Mole would have liked, chances are that the daring title and deliberate provincialism would find his novel a home at an indie press, probably even a couple of prize shortlists. All together now: ‘Put your foot down! Take me to the nearest urban conurbation!’

History of Leith, Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy

Coming down from a heroin addiction and looking for a project to keep the jitters away, Murphy wrote a history of Leith at some point around the turn of the century. Covering incorporation into Edinburgh in 1920 right up until the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, Murphy’s book is a fascinating history of this distinctive port town, albeit that it’s handwritten and full of grammatical and syntactical errors. A local publisher described the History as ‘a badly written celebration of yob culture and of people who haven’t achieved anything noteworthy in the local community’ – what critics said about Irvine Welsh’s novels so many, many times. Spud is humiliated by this rejection and burns the manuscript, illustrating a Welsh theme that it’s the winners who write history. All this happens in the novel Porno – in this year’s Trainspotting book, Dead Men’s Trousers, there’s a possibility that Spud might find literary success after all. But will he be around to enjoy it?

America Works, Tom Yates

The Underwood administration is known for its secrecy, but in some ways it was surprisingly open. There have been great American writers who were close to power – Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal – but none of these legends got to live in Pennsylvania Avenue full time, or have an affair with the First Lady. Yates was originally commissioned to write a book about Frank Underwood’s flagship employment programme, but outlived his usefulness when he began to explore Underwood’s biography and motivations. On his death, Claire Underwood told the American Observer that ‘What happened to Mr. Yates is a tragedy. Not only was he a talented writer and a valued member of our staff, but he was also a friend. Sadly, he was a man of vices. Men, women, drink and drug. I only wish I could have gotten him the help he needed in time.’ As the House of Cards series has got so messy, the fate of Yates’s manuscript is unknown.

Sterling’s Gold, Roger Sterling

Every Mad Men fan remembers the episode ‘The Suitcase’ for its emotional punch. But it’s also notable because we get a glimpse of Roger Sterling’s memoirs. Late at night, a drunken and giggling Don Draper listens to tape recordings for the autobiography, including highlights of Miss Blankenship’s ‘flapper years’ and how Bertram Cooper lost his balls to an incompetent surgeon, who performed an ‘unnecessary orchiectomy’ (‘I think he had him killed’).

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:


Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.


The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.


Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

The Lost Continent: Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe

February 5, 2017

fracturedeuropeEurope in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.

In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.

This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.

Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.

The Magic and the Glammer

May 2, 2016

Thedarktower7They’re talking about making a movie of The Dark Tower cycle, Stephen King’s fantasy epic. I think Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland (after all, John Luther and Stringer Bell were both gunslingers of a kind) but can Elba and Matthew McConaughey save the Tower from the curse of Stephen King adaptations? I think you would need a multi-series HBO or Netflix deal to really do it justice so I am not hopeful. But we will always have the books.

If exiled to the Radio 4 desert island and told I could bring one book, I would choose the Dark Tower cycle. True, it arguably doesn’t get going until Jake finally makes it back to Mid-World in The Waste Lands. True, the Tower books have unfortunate longeurs, maddening self-reference and quirky little New Englandisms that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But there’s something about the world in these books that makes you feel you’re actually walking around in it. King began the cycle as a college student of the early 1970s. He didn’t get to the final finishing sprint in the early 2000s at a time where everything else he wrote showed signs of a tired and flagging talent. But the last three Tower books are still gold. His heart never quite left the trail.

There’s a point in the story where Roland compares his world to the wreck of a ship – things are washed upon the shore, and float upon the surface, and these random objects might give you a sense of something greater, but they aren’t comprehensive. It’s the best way to world build, and it’s what makes the Tower cycle so compulsive. Roland – if I may give the overview – is the last of a knight caste that plays the role of soldier, strategist and diplomat in a civilisation now in ruins. Roland’s quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which holds up the universe, and is under attack from an evil project led by the Crimson King, whose forces are trying to break the six cosmic beams that hold the Tower up. The King’s men have been at this for years, working across centuries and a multiplicity of universes, using monsters, vampires and dummy corporations. We don’t know the Red King’s motivations: he’s a crazy demon who acts seemingly on pure nihilism. As Ted Brautigan says: ‘Do they see the lethal insanity of a race to the brink of oblivion, and then over the edge? Apparently not. If they did, surely they wouldn’t be racing to begin with. Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’

As a result of the Beam’s gradual weakening, society is destroyed by war and revolution, time and distance grow hazy, even the elementary concepts of reality wear down as holes open in the fabric of the universe. The books are filled with instances of decay: grey and sluggish bees, crawling orderlessly around a broken hive; a version of New York rotted into civil war; a robot outside a purpose-built brothel screaming the same come-on over and over in an eternal synthes loop. Mid-World is full of technology, from electric lights to teleportation devices, left behind by the ‘Old People’ – maybe King’s word for an age of science that has long passed – but half of this technology doesn’t work and what remains is incomprehensible to the point of uselessness. ‘Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces,’ Roland says. Exhaustion. Deterioration. Degeneration. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

As an official guardian of order, Roland wants to get to the Tower so he can save it, and put a stop to all this unraveling gloom. But he also wants to get to the Tower so he can see it. Go through the field of singing roses and climb the spirals of the Tower and see what’s at the top. It’s his obsession – and it strikes me now how much of the Tower cycle is about obsession and addiction: Nort chomping on devil-grass, Eddie the heroin addict, Balazar with his towers of cards, Calvin’s books, Rhea’s glass, even King’s own alcoholism and drug-fiending is touched upon. Roland himself draws followers easily. As well as the gun he has the sideline talent of hypnotism. But his comrades tend to come to bad ends. Roland himself is like a drug, one that kills.

It’s made all too clear in the final volume. At first The Dark Tower is a fun book, with Roland and his gunslingers taking on the bad guys of Algul Siento. Then Eddie falls – and his death is just the beginning. One by one each well-loved character hits the clearing. It’s a crescendo of sadness with Roland struggling on towards the Tower, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early on in this book, the spider-prince Mordred traps a billy-bumbler (sort of a cat-dog species with a limited vocal ability) and gets ready to eat it. The bumbler sends a sad plea for clemency – please let me live; I want to live have fun play a little; don’t hurt me – to no avail: Mordred chomps the poor creature into pieces. Close by, another bumbler, gunslinger mascot Oy, senses it: ‘Somewhere close by, one of his kind had died… but dying was the way of the world; it was a hard world and always had been.’ Delah. So it goes. You’re even a little sorry to see Walter o’Dim check out.

Part of this glammer though is the ironic glammer of postmodernism. Parts of Mid-World are damn near recycled. There’s a guardian of the Beam named after a Richard Adams novel. The mad factions of Lud kill each other to a ZZ Top riff they call the ‘god-drums’. The Crimson King’s villains travel through time and the multiverse, get their kicks from watching 9/11 and the Lincoln assassination, and make deadly weapons based on the ‘snitch’ from the Harry Potter Quidditch game. Stephen King himself has a supporting role. ‘You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,’ he tells Roland. So much of the story depends on text and interpretation and representation. The metafictional King saves Roland and Susannah from a tricksy vampire by means of a carefully placed note saying: ‘RELAX! HERE COMES THE DEUS EX MACHINA!’ The Crimson King is destroyed by the artist Patrick Danville by the expedient of drawing and then erasing him. So much of it all comes down to creation and artistry. Glammer. Roland says of Stephen King that ‘I’ve met talespinners before, Jake, and they’re all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they’re afraid of life.’

So there’s plenty of metafiction here, but none of it’s self conscious. You still feel the magic and the glammer. King revisited the Dark Tower series in 2011 with The Wind Through the Keyhole – a kind of add on that doesn’t really extend the story but has a draw all of its own. The protagonist in this one, Tim Stoutheart, searching for a cure for his blind mother, follows a beautiful fairy into the forest: he later discovers that the fairy was an agent of Walter o’Dim explicitly trying to get him lost and confuse him. He later discovers half a dozen billy-bumblers sitting on a felled tree, sniffing the air for a storm. ‘They were, he thought, far more beautiful than the treacherous Armaneeta, because the only magic about them was the plain magic of living things.’ In this line is the honest appeal of King’s Tower. The touch of other worlds.

Bird and Book: The Practical Magic of Strange and Norrell

June 25, 2015

Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks – all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room – he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not… He meets his neighbours twice or thrice a quarter – for this is England where a man’s neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable – they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone – but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.

I haven’t watched primetime UK drama for years. Part of the reason is TV here doesn’t give a story room to breathe. Unlike US drama which can afford a leisurely thirteen-ep slowburn, budget obsessed BBC and ITV execs have to condense complex narrative down into two or three episodes and for me it just doesn’t work.

I started watching the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a few weeks ago, expecting it to be terrible. The show won’t win over anyone who didn’t love the book (readers of Strange and Norrell either burn through its thousand pages enchanted, or fall at the first footnote) but the producers have done a pretty good job. Susannah Clarke’s narrative gets a whole seven episodes to unfold – for the BBC, that’s like The Wire. The casting is inspired: Enzo Cilenti is a wise and sinister Childermass, Charlotte Riley a witty and stunning Arabella, Vincent Franklin a wonderful Drawlight, Paul Kaye a deranged Vinculus. Ronan Vibert is possibly the best screen Wellington since Stephen Fry. Eddie Marsan has made a career of playing disturbed losers (cf his unhinged driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky) but, complete with a dour, fey North Yorks accent, he’s Mr Norrell to the life.

Clarke’s novel is set in a Victorian England that is like our own. But her society is haunted by a romantic medieval past of Aureate magicians ruled by the lord of the North, the Raven King. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this English magic has gone from the land. It is only remembered by a York society who ‘met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ The Society are not real magicians, but theoretical magicians: ‘which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head.’

To look at Mr Norrell – particularly from Clarke’s lovely and succinct description of him, quoted at the beginning of this piece – you would think that he is another one of these purely theoretical magicians. He’s dull, he gets ill easily, he hates to travel, he has no wife, no family, he is awkward, all he does is sit and read. ‘I do not know the world,’ he admits. But when the York Society go to visit Mr Norrell, curious about his library, he tells them: ‘Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.’

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in the Victorian age. It has a Victorian narration, complete with period-style authorial comment, footnotes, references, capitalisations and delightful little archaisms – chuse, sopha, surprize, Buonaparte, Soho-square. (Neil Gaiman is surely right that the narrator ‘is not, I am convinced, Clarke, but a character in her own right, writing her book closer to Strange and Norrell’s time than our own.’) Today the Victorians are characterised, even stereotyped, as repressed – crazy with morality and hoarding unspeakable desires. Yet they also built an empire and invented numerous interesting machines.

Norrell is certainly withdrawn and repressed but he does want to do things. He does actual magic. He wants to use his magical skills to win the war against France. But the first London politician that he meets – the Foreign Secretary, Sir Walter Pole – tells him straight out: ‘Magic is not respectable, sir.[‘]

The Government cannot meddle with such things. Even this innocent little chat that you and I have had today, is likely to cause us a little embarrassment when people get to hear of it. Frankly, Mr Norrell, had I understood better what you were intending to propose today, I would not have agreed to meet you.

The ministers are soon talked round and Mr Norrell is installed as the Nation’s renowned magician: given expensive commissions, hosted in fashionable salons, the connected name of English magic. (At parties guests are ‘continually delighted’ by such Norrellite repartee as: ‘I do not know whom you mean,’ ‘I have not had the pleasure of that gentleman’s acquaintance,’ ‘I have never been to the place you mention.’) Norrell believes passionately in wisdom derived from books, and like many intellectuals, he is also a censor. He wants the magic all to himself. Norrell himself can never finish a piece of writing. But he takes books out of circulation, he closes down magician schools and societies, he’s a hoarder and destroyer of knowledge. He even proposes special courts to execute deviators from Norrellite magic. This is another great para from the novel, on Norrell’s established periodical:

There is not much to interest the serious student of magic in the early issues and the only entertainment to be got from them is contained in several articles in which Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.

Naturally, Jonathan Strange is everything Norrell is not. Strange is young, witty, handsome, sociable, married, courageous, generous, open minded, a traveller and a man of action. His TV actor Bertie Carvel looks like the diffident English gentleman from central casting, but Carvel handles Strange’s arc well, taking the character from landed fop to battle-fevered veteran to the grieving, wandering Byronic magician on the edge. Where Norrell wants to excise the Raven King from history, Strange is attracted to the King of the North and to the otherlands beyond respectable reality.

Constantly threatening to break through the structure of this Regency novel is Clarke’s Faerie alterworld. It’s a world of constant action and movement: balls, dances, murders, battles, processions, executions. The Faerie dreamscape is adamantine, profound and tempting – even Norrell is drawn by it, it’s his deal with Faerie’s playful devil, the ‘gentleman with thistle-down hair’ that brings Sidhe unreality crashing in. At first these weird legends surface in the footnotes, then rise to disrupt the main narrative. Scenes of towering bridges and shining rushing water and women in black dresses walking high and radiant on the ridges of the moors. Stones and skies and rivers pulse with warm life. Swallowing his tincture of madness, Strange has this vision:

Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great flood of confused emotion and sensation. The world was made again in flame-like colours that were impossible to bear. It was shot through with new fears, new desires, new hatreds.

Like a dream, Faerie has no coherence, no discipline. Characters kidnapped into its decadence find its ceaseless celebrations dreary. Lady Pole and the butler Stephen Black are both held under the gentleman’s enchantment for most of the story, periodically yanked into its eldritch mansions without warning and at the gentleman’s whim. Whenever they try to explain their plight to people in the real world, all that comes out are nonsense stories – long, run-on tales of metamorphosis and serendipity, the very antithesis of the Victorian novel. (The shy academic magician Mr Segundus finally manages to break this enchantment by decoding the nonsense stories with a book of childhood faerie stories.)

This is all full on genre fiction, but still the postcolonial student could have a field day with Strange and Norrell. Both men are landed aristocrats who have inherited their wealth. There are rumours of serf farms and slave colonies – there is, in Orwell’s classic phrase, a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. Mr Norrell’s henchmen are Lascelles and Drawlight, urban dandies of cruel wit and precarious fortune, the antecedents of today’s Shoreditch hipsters. Both are selfish and ruthless men who come to terrible ends. The chief servants, Childermass and Stephen Black, are devoted to their respective masters. But both quietly rage against a society run as racial and class-based apartheid. If you wanted to be really intellectual you could frame the argument as Norrellite rationalist pragmatism versus Strange’s romantic egalitarianism.

For me though, and foremost, Strange and Norrell is a story about the gulf between thought and action… perhaps between desire and action. The artist, the intellectual, the writer and the reader all contain a Norrellite and a Strangeite personality. There’s the scholarly man who wants to sit in his library all day and the wild romantic who wants to plunge, madly, into other worlds. There is a theoretical magic and a practical magic. Writing too is a kind of practical magic.


(Image: BBC)

Hail Discordia: Death of Terry Pratchett

March 12, 2015

deathisntcruelWhenever I go into someone else’s home, out of pure nosiness and idle curiosity, I always wander to the bookshelves. Whether these shelves have rows of esoteric or canonical literature, or just a few golf magazines and Viz albums, I always find something else: a couple of Discworld paperbacks, normally from the 1990s, with those rippling Josh Kirby covers, and never in good condition – these books are always squashed and scuffed a little, the look (as Stephen King said) of a book that has been much read and well loved. It is almost as if mid-period Pratchett novels were produced scruffy, like the cigarettes behind Corporal Nobbs’s ear.

My own Terry Pratchett books still look that adored, messy way. I had grown up with him. Many of us did, and every year when the new Discworld novel came out, even when we were well into our twenties, it still felt like Christmas morning. You would clear an evening and buy a bottle of wine and rediscover these lost and familiar pleasures.

Describe a Terry Pratchett plot and you will quickly find yourself sounding ridiculous – so I won’t try. Anyone who’s read him will know what I’m talking about, and the uninformed out there will have to discover this treasure-house of detail in their own time. Comic fantasy just about covers it – the first few books were basically silly adventures characterised by authorial stand-up, parodic subversions, and terrible wordplay (right to the end, if Pratchett saw an opportunity to make an awful joke, he’d jump through hoops to set it up).

Comic fantasy was a successful sub-genre in the 1980s and 1990s but the reason Pratchett lasted, and so many others didn’t, was because of the warmth and moral seriousness of the comedy. There was an abiding love of humanity that you don’t even get in Douglas Adams. Pratchett’s Discworld characters are vain, obstreperous and stupid, but he loves them. His villains, and there were many – the warped assassin Jonathan Teatime, the vampires of Carpe Jugulum, the terrifying Deacon Vorbis, Lord Hong and the Auditors – are villains because they treat ‘people as things’. This is the denouement of Feet of Clay, when the villain Pratchett’s top cop Sam Vimes has been chasing is finally exposed:

‘The candles killed two other people,’ said Carrot.

Carry started to panic again. ‘Who?’

‘An old lady and a baby in Cockbill Street.’

‘Were they important?’ said Carry.

Carrot nodded to himself. ‘I was almost feeling sorry for you,’ he said. ‘Right up to that point. You’re a lucky man, Mr Carry.’

‘You think so?’

‘Oh, yes. We got to you before Commander Vimes did.[‘]

Life is no joke, Pratchett is saying… or it’s because it’s a joke that it’s so serious. This is not a game. Here and now, you are alive. The vision penetrates through his best work. Small Gods is possibly the best work of fiction about religion ever written. Lords and Ladies takes Pratchett’s provincial witch trio and pits them against a race of beautiful and deadly elves who seduce but ultimately take everything. Read it in the twenty-first century and it’s like an allegory of human susceptibility to extremism and romantic absolutism. Perhaps his best book is Night Watch, where Commander Vimes is hurled back into old Ankh-Morpork… a place of riots, assassination and torture chambers. This last example also shows Pratchett’s love of detail, how things get done: he had a somewhat unliterary love of practical things, from falconry to clock-making – no job was too small to fascinate the author.

Every day, maybe a hundred cows died for Ankh-Morpork. So did a flock of sheep and a herd of pigs and the gods alone knew how many ducks, chickens and geese. Flour? He’d heard it was eighty tons, and about the same amount of potatoes and maybe twenty tons of herring. He didn’t particularly want to know this kind of thing, but once you started having to sort out the everlasting traffic problem these were facts that got handed to you. Every day, forty thousand eggs were laid for the city. Every day, hundreds, thousands of carts and boats and barges converged on the city with fish and honey and oysters and olives and eels and lobsters. And then think of the horses dragging this stuff, and the windmills… and the wool coming in, too, every day, the cloth, the tobacco, the spices, the ore, the timber, the cheese, the coal, the fat, the tallow, the hay EVERY DAMN DAY…

I read, somewhere I can’t remember, that Hollywood was never interested in a Discworld adaptation because execs found the books too ‘genteel and intellectual’. So they are, kind of… but there is some peculiar quality in Pratchett’s work that practically guaranteed him a success in his home country. There is something in Discworld that people respond to, some intuition: a love of plain speaking, a diligent sense of the ridiculous (‘Neither rain, nor snow, nor glom of nit’) a love of humour for its own sake, a certain stoicism, a keen scepticism for all manifestations of authority and power – a contempt for all the bad ideas and stupidity and greed that makes people’s lives miserable. His books have that rare, peculiar British sensibility, and they will be read and loved long after Pratchett himself has taken that long walk – accompanied by that tall, cowled, spooky, but somehow kindly figure – into the desert.

Statement from Random House here.

You can donate to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People in Sir Terry’s memory here.

Classic Books: The Tommyknockers

January 24, 2015

thetommyknockersMany people I follow on Twitter are Cold War and espionage nuts, which means that I sometimes see interesting things in my timeline I wouldn’t otherwise. One of these is an article from Vice about the history of the nuclear submarine: the writer, Michael Byrne, describes the atom sub as the underwater equivalent of a space station, able to float the depths for decades without refuelling, a hidden biosphere with a lethal capacity – and he uses a gorgeous and chilling phrase, ‘The haunt at the end of everything.’

The Cold War always had a spectral and horror genre element. The idea of large tracts of the planet being vaporised in ten seconds is, of course, pretty scary without even introducing a supernatural element into the process. Read Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, his hard-factual history of nuclear weapons, to understand how close we came. Schlosser writes with sympathy and humanity about the men and women who build and maintain these fearful machines, and conveys a marvellous sense of the contradiction inherent in our relationship with the bomb: nuclear weapons are extremely sensitive and complex to handle, the slightest miscalculation can be cataclysmic, and yet even the best of us make mistakes – ‘the mixture of human fallibility and technological complexity that can lead to disaster.’ Human error is natural, but with nukes, human error can cost millions of lives. (‘Ah, shit, there goes Gloucestershire. Sorry, boss.’) The relationship with technology becomes a dance of careful terrors.

But still there is an otherworldly element to the terror. Douglas Coupland’s Life After God features a section called ‘The Dead Speak’, where people who have died in a nuclear war talk of their last moments on earth: ‘The game show playing on the countertop TV then suddenly stopped and the screen displayed color bars with a piercing tone and then for maybe a second there was a TV news anchorman with a map of Iceland on the screen behind him. I said ‘hello’ into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit.’ Most postapocalyptic novels and series contain in the backdrop some kind of nuclear catastrophe. The Cold War seems retro these days – and maybe it shouldn’t: nuclear weapons still exist, imagine if ISIS got hold of one of these things, or if the Kouachi brothers had armed themselves with a neutron bomb? – but the retro adds to the fear. Comic books behind glass with strange eyeless things emerging from Quonset huts in waves of hollow unearthly light. Nukes are eerie. Even Don de Lillo’s highbrow Underworld has children turned into monsters and a feeling of unreality beneath the surface of things.

Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was published in 1987, at the tail end of the official nuclear age. It also came from the peak thrash of King’s alcohol and drug addiction: in On Writing, King says the novel was written late at night, ‘with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Maybe King’s febrile state explains his choice of protagonist: while King heroes are always a little flawed, Tommyknockers protagonist Jim Gardener is a natural and unrepentant train wreck of a man, an alcoholic poet who has lost his job as a college professor after shooting his wife while drunk. In his poverty and desperation, Gardener becomes obsessed with nuclear power, ranting about the dangers of the Bomb whenever he gets a chance. He knows that ‘what he was really protesting against was the reactor in his own heart… There was some technician inside who should have long since been fired.’ But the knowledge doesn’t help him.

We meet Gardener when he is doing a performance tour with something called ‘The New England Poetry Caravan’, a series of readings to Hampshire lay appreciators run by a mean-spirited arts administrator looking for a reason to drop Gardener from the programme. Although Gardener drinks and brawls throughout the tour, the readings go well: at his last performance men give him a standing ovation with tears in their eyes. Things go wrong for good, however, when he attends a post-reading faculty party at the home of a senior academic.

I love this scene, because it shows us King’s gift for comedy – not just the black farce outlined above, but in more subtle ways about the poetry scene. This is King on the beginning of the party:

There was a large buffet for which most of the poets made a beeline, reliably following Gardener’s First Rule of Touring Poets: If it’s gratis, grab it. As he watched, Ann Delaney, who wrote spare, haunting poems about rural working-class New England, stretched her jaws wide and ripped into the huge sandwich she was holding. Mayonnaise the color and texture of bull semen squirted between her fingers, and Ann licked it off her hand nonchalantly. She tipped Gardener a wink. To her left, last year’s winner of Boston University’s Hawthorne Prize (for his long poem Harbor Dreams 1650-1980) was cramming green olives into his mouth with blurry speed. This fellow, Jon Evard Symington by name, paused long enough to drop a handful of wrapped mini-wheels of Bonbel cheese into each pocket of his corduroy sport-coat (patched elbows, naturally) and then went back to the olives.

The comedy turns black, however, when Gardener encounters a braying, ignorant nuclear plant exec – ‘Ted the Power Man’ – and the inevitable drunken debate ensues. In a beautifully sustained chapter, Gardener knocks down the Power Man’s contentions, listing the fuckups, the lies, the projections, the death rates, the diseases, the cancer stats, the contaminated water – intellectually, he wins every argument, but grows more and more aggressive in his tone and phrasing, so in love with his obsession and the darkness that propels it, that the senior academic throws him out: or tries to – Gardener elbows the academic in his immense belly, causing a fatal heart attack, then chases Ted the Power Man down the hall with an umbrella.

After an eight day blackout, Gardener awakes on the Arcadia breakwater with no money and a suicidal depression. One thing defers his self-slaughter: an intuition that his old friend, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Anderson, is in trouble. Bobbi is Gardener’s old student, lover and friend, and is sane in every way Gardener isn’t. She lives a peaceful life in a rural Maine town and is a successful writer of Westerns. But when Gardener arrives in Bobbi’s farmhouse in remote Haven, something spooky has occurred. Bobbi has gone on a frenetic technological jag, building things that couldn’t possibly exist: flying tractors, a water heater that runs off batteries, a typewriter that runs off telepathy. This strange power comes from a UFO buried in the earth, indifferent and colossal, the aliens long dead, but its weird radiation oxidising into the atmosphere, generating a mad creativity in its radius. In it Gardener sees an alternative to the nuclear curse: the ‘pill to take the place of gasoline.’ Enthusiastically he helps Bobbi dig up the ship, and as they uncover more and more of its surface, its force gradually turns the township into demons – the Tommyknockers of the title.

King is great on small communities that go badly wrong and has huge fun with Haven: suddenly gifted with telekinetic powers and mind-shattering ideas, the residents of this obscure village go crazy, converting old household appliances and childhood toys into gadgets that tear holes in the universe. Smoke alarms shoot lasers, machine parts levitate by remote control, and a murderous Coke machine guards Haven’s borders. There are also physical changes: people’s teeth fall out, their bodies become translucent, blood turns green. The Tommyknockers are a villainous species, authoritarian and conformist, yet quarrelsome to the point of ridiculous. ‘We squabble!’ Bobbi tells Gard. ‘Le mot juste!’ Gardener realises their evil – and his enabling of it – almost too late:

We squabble. Every now and then we even tussle a bit. We’re grownups – I guess – but we still have bad tempers, like kids do, and we also still like to have fun, like kids do, so we satisfied both wants by building all these nifty nuclear slingshots, and every now and then we leave a few around for people to pick up, and do you know what? They always do. People like Ted, who are perfectly willing to kill so no woman in Braintree with the wherewithal to buy one shall want for electricity to run her hair-dryer. People like you, Gard, who see only minimal drawbacks to the idea of killing for peace.

It would be such a dull world without guns and squabbles, wouldn’t it?

The Tommyknockers is not a well liked book – James Smythe, in his Rereading Stephen King series, says that ‘it reads like one long, cocaine-fuelled late-night paranoia fantasy’ – but it’s one that I always return to. The science is a mess, but has its own compulsive logic within the mess. King is realistic about space exploration: his Tommyknockers have the power of teleportation, have the power to create portals ‘that actually seem to go somewhere. But in almost all cases, it isn’t anywhere anyone would want to go.’ The book is genuinely scary (‘They got the door shut before Shatterday, but a lot of people cooked when the orbit changed’) and has a truly action packed ending, with Gardener racing to the ship through a burning forest while a variety of mutants and bizarre gadgets try in vain to stop him. And I think it ages better than any other King. As he says in his intro:

Haven is not real. The characters are not real. This is a work of fiction, with one exception:

The Tommyknockers are real.

If you think I’m kidding, you missed the nightly news.

Children of the Damned

June 23, 2014

The twist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is visible from the opening page. The story features a group of teenagers at a boarding school. It’s a positive atmosphere, the characters gossip, mess around, generate thrills and happy memories. The twist is that the characters are clones, second-class citizens created purely as support systems for healthy organs which will be harvested, one by one, for donation to natural born humans. It’s a dystopian horror, full of undertones and grisly shadows. Stephen King or Ray Bradbury would have done this in five thousand words. Ishiguro spins it out into a novel.

Not that it fails as such. I particularly liked the way that some of the teachers looked at the characters with fear and revulsion – the way people react to big spiders in the house towards late August, an instinct towards life you feel shouldn’t exist but somehow does. Another fine detail is in the artworks and pathetic trinkets that the clones collect. A cassette tape counts as a big find. The book is supposed to be set in the late nineties, but feels like rationing-era. A hinterland of long empty roads and disused hostels. The only sign of life is a billboard of an idealised office environment, the kind of thing you see in temp agency literature. It could be that all clones get is fishheads and barrel scrapings. Or it could be that, in this world, despite medical and technological advances, there’s nothing going on and no one’s particularly happy.

Which brings us to the science. What is this place? Like any respectable literary novelist having a go at science fiction, Ishiguro is non-specific. There was a ‘war’, a ‘scandal’. Keep it general, you hear him saying as he types. It’s only the hacks who get into names, places, dates. But Ishiguro doesn’t seem to realise that designers of systems go for efficacy. If you can grow replicate people purely as to generate healthy organs surely you can just grow the organs in a petri dish and avoid all the expense, hassle and tedious debates on The Moral Maze? Science tends to make things easier, and less painful. (Would you rather attend the clap clinic in 2014 or 1914?) And surely no government would ever sanction such cruel and mindless butchery of… ah, but then you come up against Leonard of Quirm, casually designing ‘a weapon of such destructive power, it would render war meaningless, as no one would ever dare use it.

The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s other big novel, also chronicled empty lives, but there was glamour there. I didn’t realise this on first reading, but Stevens loves the glamour of submission. Burnish, great import, matters of global significance – Stevens throws away his life, his love, his family for this rush. It is the rush of submission that moves the great wheels of power as surely as the tyrant’s desire to crush the human face beneath his jackboot. But the clones of Never Let Me Go don’t seem like they want to submit in the formalised (and yet somehow passionate) way of Mr Stevens. They just want to continue their little lives. However – and this is made explicit – it can’t happen. The narrator Kath is only in her early thirties and all her friends are dying and nothing’s going to change that. ‘Poor little creatures,’ says the clone boss. Exactly! Ishiguro is almost sadistic in this. He’s like a children’s author in this intent to make his readers cry. If you want the blue bird of happiness to take a shit on your head – Ishiguro’s your man.

What Ishiguro demonstrates in this book is there’s no great spark, no divine breath that animates the empty flesh. Life is matter, that’s the glorious truth, but in this novel it makes the sadness unbearable. The ‘deferral’ that Kath and Tommy ask for won’t be granted to us either. For no matter how many good memories we experience, how many cassette tapes we collect (or MP3s, come to that) we all end up on the table sometime. We’re the children of the damned, and playtime is over.

(Apologies that the science is so wonky in this. I’m a literature graduate: I don’t have to know how things actually work.)

from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Image: Bookmania)

Requiem for a Character

April 11, 2014

At some point in my childhood, I was led into a room in a school with a middle aged woman behind a desk. It was some kind of interview, for secondary school, I don’t remember, I was around ten or eleven at this time.

What I do remember is the woman asking me: ‘What’s your birthday?’

‘November 17,’ I said.

The woman produced a book. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s find out what Adrian Mole did on your birthday.’

That icebreaker was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Sue Townsend’s death. We all knew Adrian Mole. We had grown up with him. I read the teenage diaries as a kid, of course I did, but it’s the adult novels I loved most, because childhood in the main follows a set path, whereas once you’ve grown up, anything can happen.

Not that much happens in the Mole diaries. As teenagers Adrian and his girlfriend Pandora are snobs in the way that only teenage outsiders can be. But Pandora grows up to be an Oxford PhD, Member of Parliament and bon viveur, while Adrian lives a life of poverty and disappointment. He racks up debt, two failed marriages, spends years raising children alone on a sink estate and, in the final book, develops prostate cancer. The books are well loved despite this darkness. Or perhaps because of it. Townsend has Chekhov’s chip of ice. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Dreams dissolve like morning mist.

My favourite of the Mole books is The Wilderness Years. In this, it’s the early 1990s and Adrian is a young man squatting in Pandora’s Oxford boxroom. Over the course of the book, he gets fired, dumped, moves cities, all the while writing a ludicrous novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, featuring Adrian’s fantasy surrogate and wish-fulfilment icon, Jake Westmorland. Jake’s adventures become a book within a book as Adrian excerpts his work in progress alongside his regular diary. The Mole novel is preposterous (‘Put your foot down!’ Jake barked to the minicab driver. ‘Take me to the nearest urban conurbation’) but develops a poignant edge as Adrian’s fiction mirrors his moods and charts his growth as a person. We laugh at Adrian, but never stop loving him. He has no talent but is in his own way a wonderful human being.

There are probably millions of Adrian Mole type intellectuals in provincial towns and cities all over the UK – reading in old man’s pubs, working the counter at secondhand bookshops, raising pigs in the fields of England.

This post is meant as my tribute to these fine men.


 Sue Townsend 1946-2014. Image via The Daily Edge