Posts Tagged ‘bookshop’

A Time of Gifts

May 1, 2012

People tend to expect me to have read everything, so it always comes as something of an embarrassment when I have to admit to a glaring gap in my literary landscape, to not having read Middlesex, The Corrections or Proust, for instance. I can see their faces fall and a gleam of suspicion enter their eyes as they wonder if I’m no more than a fraud, someone posturing as an avid reader, for really, how can I pretend to talk about books when I’ve not even read any Faulkner.

In such an instance there is always a shameful impulse to lie. Or, as one inevitably knows something about the book or author in question, it’s easy to employ what my old boss used to term ‘an Oxford answer’ – that is responding to a question by answering a different one. For instance:

‘Have you read much Proust?’

‘You know, I found the Proustian connection in The Hare with Amber Eyes completely fascinating. I loved that chunk on Charles Ephrussi, especially that bit about the asparagus!’

Then it’s easy peasy to divert the course of conversation on to firmer ground and the question of Proust is all but forgotten. Never underestimate the power of a good Oxford answer.

Failing that, there are all those silly books with titles like ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ or ‘An idiots guide to the Classics’ which are of tremendous help to a bluffer. But I think such books are a real shame. Surely the whole point of being able to talk about a book is the pleasure one gets from having read it in the first place?

But, in any case, when one does finally get around to reading one of those books that one is supposed to have read, it is deeply satisfying. So I am very pleased to announce that I have at last read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I have a theory that the reason why Patrick Leigh Fermor comes up so often in conversation is because, until he passed away last year, he hung around rather a lot in Gentlemen’s Clubs and at Oxford dinners, so a surprisingly large number of people – usually oldish men – have met him. And everyone loves to indulge in a little name-dropping. ‘Oh you simply must read A Time of Gifts. Such a wonderful book. Oh those descriptions. Marvellous. You know, I met him a couple of times. Terribly nice chap. Fascinating stories.’

I suspect it must be thanks to this that I have been told I must read A Time of Gifts a gazillion times. I even own a rather handsome edition of it, published by the Folio society, that my father gave me a few years ago. (Yes, he met him a couple of times and thought he was fascinating.)

I certainly loved reading such a smart edition. Everyone makes such a fuss about hardbacks being so heavy, but really I am terrifically weak with especially spindly wrists and didn’t find it a problem in the slightest. Although I did feel like I had to be a bit more careful when reading it in the bath, drying my hands a little more assiduously before turning the pages, as it really is too smart to trash and wrinkle. It’s such a lovely book that someone even sparked up a conversation with me in a café, wanting to know where I’d found such a beautiful edition. Alas, as the Folio Society operates by subscription only, for once I couldn’t direct her to my bookshop.

A Time of Gifts is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s record of his journey across Europe in the 1930s. He sets off on a terribly rainy day, when ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly’, to catch a ferry to Holland from where he will walk all the way to ‘Constantinople’, or Istanbul, as we might call it.

Admittedly, it’s a small thing, but therein lay my first disappointment. I was expecting him to reach Constantinople, the destination of which he boasts to anyone he meets en route. I found it increasingly troubling, as the number of remaining pages dwindled and he was still only in Austria, or Czechoslovakia, to imagine how he was going to make it all the way to Istanbul before the end. I wondered if my mental map of Europe was way off, or if he’d cave in and take a train. But no, the book ends when he reaches Hungary. You’ve got to read the next one to get further, and even then you don’t make it to Istanbul. The third and final volume is to be published posthumously, albeit only ‘near-finished’, next year.

His route more-or-less follows the Rhine and then the Danube. It was certainly a fascinating time to tread this ground,  just before so much of it would be destroyed by war. Some of the most interesting bits are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s encounters with Nazism. He meets one young man who has covered his room with Nazi memorabilia, who is quick to admit that a year ago it was all Communist. In Munich, he sees ‘a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm … unloosing, in a staunchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours’. So many school history lessons were spent studying Nazi Germany and yet these anecdotes seem to capture something unexpected.

Although the journey was made in the thirties, Patrick Leigh Fermor didn’t come to write the book until forty years later. And while the knowledge of what was to come casts a harrowing light on what he sees, all the time elapsed means that the text has lost rather a lot of immediacy. As I read it, I felt like I was moving from one set piece – one polished dinner party story – to another. For instance, here is a snippet of the very long description of Melk:

Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene.

I hate this kind of writing. It is so overblown, over-the-top, pompous. And, if he’s going to indulge in this silly over-extended metaphor, then at least accompany it with a straightforward paragraph saying what Melk actually looks like! Perhaps it’s lucky that, unlike most people, I never met Patrick Leigh Fermor. If he’d gone off on one like this over dinner, I might have nodded off into my soup.

So instead of being able to see Melk in my mind’s eye, I’m left with a complicated musical metaphor. Instead of being able to see the landscape, I can only see Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow, which he uses as a frequent comparison.

Perhaps I found this particularly troubling having so recently read Olivia Laing’s To the River. Alongside her digressions into literature, myth and history, the descriptions are so real that I could smell the meadowsweet, hear the wood pigeons and feel the biting cold of the river water. I missed all that in A Time of Gifts.

And I missed listening to the walker’s rambling thoughts. We don’t get the wonderings meandering through his head as he wanders along the rivers, instead we are given a list of the works of literature that he recites to himself (sometimes backwards) as he walks. It made me curse my terrible memory and made me think that I’d quite like to reread the Aeneid and that I wished I knew anything like the amount of Latin he did. But mostly it made me think that Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bit of a show off. It certainly doesn’t spark much empathy.

At least I’ve read it now. And next time someone asks me if I’ve read A Time of Gifts, I can forestall their bragging about having met Patrick Leigh Fermor, once or twice, by saying, ‘Yes, I’ve read it and I thought it was a bit of a let-down actually. So many people seem to have met him, and they all say he was such a charismatic, fascinating man, so it was a bit of a shame that he comes across as so arrogant and pompous in the book.’ I can already imagine the horrified reaction. I can certainly see it far more clearly than many of the things written about in A Time of Gifts.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

December 5, 2011

There are few feelings I hate more than the anxious, distracted restlessness that arises from not knowing what to read. Given that I work in a bookshop, this feeling comes with an added tinge of guilt, of knowing that it is inexcusable to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books everyday, and not to be able to pick one out.

The feeling tends to arise when I am tired of reading a particular type of book, and feel that really I ought to read something different. Having had a bit of a binge on mid-twentieth-century novels by women – I Capture the Castle, Mariana, Westwood – I felt that perhaps I should read something more recent, written by a man. Perhaps even some non-fiction.

I dipped in and out of the new Charles Nicholl book, Traces Remain, but, try as I might, couldn’t get into it. I read a very fascinating book for research for my novel, Jewish London by Dr Gerry Black. But that counted more as reading for work rather than reading for pleasure. I found myself reading rather a lot of articles in magazines and listening to the radio more than usual. And then, after a week or so, the realisation sank in that I wasn’t actually reading a book at all. The horror!

So I abandoned my resolution to read some new male non-fiction and settled down to something by Elizabeth Taylor. The author, not the actress, just to clarify.

Ever since I started working at the bookshop I’ve had half an eye on the little collection of Elizabeth Taylor novels lined up on the shelf. Published by Virago, they have rather distinctive covers, which I’m not quite sure whether or not I like. The prompt came when my agent (yes, this is a new, exciting development for the novel …) said that I might enjoy Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. And indeed I did.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a book about old people. It is the story of Mrs Palfrey, a widow, who arrives at the Claremont hotel in South Kensington, where she wants to live out as much of the end of her life as she can. There are other residents at the Claremont, gossipy old women and one old man, all with their own particular eccentricities and foibles, mostly on the verge of senility.

The characters are drawn with the perfect mixture of sympathy and detachment. The sympathy creates pathos and understanding for these poor old women with their painful varicose veins, or arthritis, or forgetfulness. But there is just enough detachment for this to be rendered with a wry humour, stopping short of cruelty, but preventing the prose from being too worthy and sanctimonious. And this detachment makes the characters more clearly delineated. Rather than being vague, wafty old people, the fact that they can be shown to be a little spiteful, or petty, or interfering, makes them far more real.

Mrs Palfrey soon finds herself telling the other residents at the Claremont about her grandson Desmond, who works at the British Museum. She knits him a jumper. But Desmond doesn’t come to visit. Mrs Palfrey writes to her daughter about it, but to no avail:

He still neither came nor wrote, and she heartily wished that she had never mentioned him at the Claremont. She began to feel pitied. All the other residents had visitors – even quite distant relations did their duty occasionally; they came for a while, over-praised the comfort of the hotel, and went relievedly away. It was inconceivable to Mrs Palfrey that her only grandchild – her heir, for that matter – should be so negligent.

Mrs Arbuthnot, on one of her worst arthritis days, condoled with her spitefully, and that night Mrs Palfrey could not sleep. She fretted through the small hours, feeling panic at her loneliness.

I must not get fussed, she warned herself. Getting fussed was bad for her heart. She put on the light and took a pill, and wondered if the morning would never come.

Mrs Palfrey is upset partly for the sake of keeping up appearances – ‘she heartily wished that she had never mentioned him at the Claremont’ – and partly out of indignation that her grandson will inherit her money in spite of doing nothing for her. These aren’t particularly noble reasons, but they are at least honest, and this honesty makes one sympathise with poor Mrs Palfrey, who, after all, isn’t in particularly good health, and gets ‘fussed’ and ‘fret’s and ‘panic’s about it miserably.

It’s particularly clever that within this expert probing of Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness, Taylor manages to slip in some keen observations of other people too. The other residents’ visitors ‘did their duty occasionally’, coming only to speak empty words and then to slip away ‘relievedly’. That ‘relievedly’ is very telling. Relieved that they aren’t old and don’t have to live at the Claremont with its dotty inmates? Relieved that they don’t have to shoulder the burden of their old relative? Relieved that their duty’s done for the month? And Mrs Arbuthnot offers Mrs Palfrey condolence, but only out of ‘spite’, because her arthritis has been particularly painful.

Somehow all this insight is delivered lightly and easily. Nothing is overegged or treated clumsily. Taylor renders her characters sympathetically yet she is not completely averse to gently poking fun at them, of saying, really, they’re all as bad as each other.

Mrs Palfrey gets herself into a pickle with her grandson and, when she falls down and is rescued by an impoverished young aspiring author, asks him if he’ll play the part of her grandson and come for dinner at the Claremont. Soon she begins to feel rather grandmotherly towards him, and he almost like a grandson to her. This is slightly tainted by his use of Mrs Palfrey as inspiration for his novel, but only slightly.

It’s a very touching book. Witty, sharp, and amusing, but with an enduring melancholy that twists through everything. The writer and critic Paul Bailey is quoted on the cover of the book with the following;

Elizabeth Taylor had the keenest eye and ear for the pain lurking behind a genteel demeanour

I think that’s exactly right. The characters can seem funny and eccentric, but underlying this is a great deal of pain and sadness.

Next time an old dear comes into the bookshop and spends twenty minutes vacillating between greeting cards, before complaining about the price and pointedly counting out coppers and 10ps to cover it; or asks about an obscure out-of-print book that she feels is somehow my fault for not being available, and for which I deserve an earful; or just wants to whine at me about something, anything, sucking the life out of me like a dementor … well I’ll think of Mrs Palfrey with her ‘noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl’, who ‘would have made a distinguished-looking man’, and feel far more tolerant. I’ll also think somewhat enviously of Elizabeth Taylor and wish that I could write half as well as her.

A Literary A-Z

May 31, 2011


Just over a year or so ago, I’d have found G a bit tricky. There’s Graham Greene (of course) and also Amitav Ghosh – I was mildly obsessed with his books, when I was at university. And, thinking back to children’s books, there’s also Ursula le Guin, who wrote the absolute classic Earthsea books, featuring Sparrowhawk, a wizard with whom, as a ten-year-old, I was completely in love.

But all this was before I discovered Jane Gardam. It was before a strange two weeks, last March, when I was recovering from having my tonsils removed – a time spent moving between bed and sofa, alternating between severe pain and being smacked out on Codeine, when it took half an hour to nibble a piece of toast. A colleague had recommended reading A Long Way from Verona. She said it was one of her favourite books – comforting, funny, and brilliant enough to make anyone want to become a writer. Indeed, she gushed about it so much, I felt like I couldn’t very well say no. (Now, I worry that I have the same unnerving effect when recommending Jane Gardam to unsuspecting customers.)

Reading A Long Way from Verona was absolute bliss. It was everything I’d hoped for and more – silly and clever and touching and altogether brilliant and, best of all, utterly eccentric. Set in wartime Yorkshire, it’s written from the point of view of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl, who is determined to be a writer. (For more, see this earlier post.)

Subsequently, I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (see this post) and then Old Filth, both of which confirmed my view of her as one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. (And these two were read without any codeine at all.) Jane Gardam manages to be so terribly clever in such a light-hearted, delicate, precise way. Everything is very funny yet also quietly poignant; it all seems slightly mad, yet is so perfectly observed. I cannot recommend her highly enough. G is definitely for Gardam.


I cannot resist bringing in a terrific tale from the bookshop. Somebody’s favourite author is Roger Hargreaves, he who wrote the Mr Men books. I say ‘somebody’, because until last week we didn’t know who he or she was. We have a recurrent problem in that every couple of months, ALL our Mr Men and Little Miss books – so that’s around a hundred of them – would disappear. Despite our most vigilant efforts, no one had managed to catch sight of the thief. Until last week, that is, when my colleague and I were involved in a pretty exciting car chase.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I came out of the stock room and instantly noticed that the Mr Mens were gone. I told my colleague – I shall call him, enigmatically, ‘C’ – and C said, ‘Oh my god, it was that woman, she’s only just left.’ He raced out of the shop, accosting her, asking her about the books, asking if he could look in her, suddenly rather suspiciously capacious, bag. She refused to stop, hurried across the road, with him in hot pursuit, and jumped into her getaway car. Yes! She really had a getaway car, with a driver inside. Quick-thinking C, wrote the number plate down on his hand, as they sped off towards the horizon. We phoned the police. We got to use the funny Charlie Foxtrot Tango code. The police said they’d try and catch em. But they didn’t. They just suggested we got CCTV. And that was that.

But, Mr Men thief, if you were to happen to read this. BE WARNED. We know who you are now! Don’t ever come near our shop again.

There are some good Hs. There’s Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame, Hemmingway and Siri Husvedt. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read anything by her. I must put that right, as several people have told me how fantastic she is. I suppose the correct choice should be Hemmingway, but, for some reason I’ve never been quite as wild about him as I feel I ought. My favourite Hemmingway moment is that really naf bit in the film City of Angels when Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan to describe a pear like Hemingway:

Sweet…juicy. Soft on your tongue. Grainy … like sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth.

I suppose it’s actually quite good, but watching it feels cringingly terrible.

But for my real favourite H I’ve got to hop over to non-fiction and say Alexandra Harris. What a hero. Her book, Romantic Moderns, is completely wonderful. (I’ve written about it here and here.) She shares Jane Gardam’s eccentric tone and lightness of touch. What comes across more than anything in this beautiful book, is quite how much she knows, yet quite how lightly she wears her knowledge. Rather than wading through millions of dates and dry facts, the book is a feast of gleeful anecdotes. My favourite one is in her chapter entitled, ‘An Hour in the Garden’, when she writes about how flowers became a kind of protest against the utilitarianism and rationing of war. In 1943 The Transport of Flowers Order (yes, really!) banned the transit of flowers by rail and, consequently, tales of flower smuggling bloomed. People used to scoop the hearts out of cauliflowers and fill them with anemones. Extraordinary!

Harris has a magpie’s eye for the sparkling anecdote that brings an idea brilliantly to life. Romantic Moderns is a marvellous book that has got to be in my non-fiction Top 3, and definitely the winner for H.


I is a troublesome letter for an author’s surname. I haven’t read anything by John Irving, which makes me feel, rather resignedly that perhaps, just by default, due to the paucity of authors whose last names begin with I, it might have to go to Ishiguro. Even though I think he’s not really all that. Izzo is supposed to be a great French crime writer, but I haven’t read him either. I suppose I could be precocious and a bit witty and say, aha, ‘I’ am my favourite writer. But that’s, frankly, a bit too nauseatingly self-satisfied.

I was about to give up on this one and just say ok, Ishiguro’s good enough, but, by a tremendous piece of luch, I’ve been saved by a splendid theatre trip on Saturday night. I’m not sure if I’ve yet mentioned The Rosemary Branch on EmilyBooks. It’s a sweet little theatre pub, just round the corner from me, which happens to be playing rather a large part in the novel I’m writing. By happy coincidence a friend has been acting there in I am a Camera – a play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

First of all, let me just say, that there are few things better than a night out at a theatre pub, especially if it’s local. It feels a bit like going back to the fifties. All the punters are very friendly and jolly. The landlady knows pretty much everyone by name. There’s a lot of sitting around, drinking and gassing in the interval and afterwards, that you definitely don’t get in a theatre that offers only an expensive, crowded bar, rather than a spacious, welcoming pub.

And the play itself was fantastic. It’s had brilliant reviews, which is not particularly common for Fringe theatre. The acting was top notch, and the story was brilliant, following the escapades of Isherwood and Sally Bowles – two English expats – in 1930s Berlin. The title is from the first line in Isherwood’s book:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Good first line.

I know that a play based on a book by an author is somewhat tenuous ground to claim that he’s the best author for I, but well, sorry, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I have seen the film of The Single Man, based on another of his books, too.) Anyway, I fully intend on reading Goodbye to Berlin as soon as poss – then I’ll have something a bit more solid as backup – but, even in the meantime, Christopher Isherwood wins for I.

‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night’

March 7, 2011

Saturday night was World Book Night. For those of you who missed it, the main event revolved around a huge giveaway of a million books. Well actually, 40,000 copies of 25 books. (I’ve written a piece about it for the Spectator Arts Blog, which you can read here.)

The title of this blog is a quotation from Nicola Morgan, who suggested a ‘complementary World Book Night‘, for which you’d buy just one book and give it away. Inside the book you’d write ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’

Well, World Book Night made me think about the art of giving away a book.  It’s rather an important thing to think about as books are, as often as not, bought as a present for someone rather than for one’s own pleasurable consumption. I have even become a rather more accomplished wrapper-upper due to the vast number of books I’ve wrapped for customers in the shop.

The Guardian did a great piece about which books various writers like to give and receive as presents. Several seem to like giving away books of poetry – AS Byatt, Andrew Motion (funnily enough), David Nicholls, Jonathan Raban, Rose Tremain.

And book tokens are surprisingly divisive. PD James loves them – ‘I never give books, only book tokens, which I give frequently for birthdays and at Christmas to young and old members of my family.’ Anthony Horowitz has always hated them – ‘If there was anything I hated receiving as a child, it was a book token. I had a couple of namby-pamby aunts who always gave me book tokens, a present almost purposely designed to remind me how thick and illiterate I was.’

But, most importantly, several wise writerly souls realise that, as David Mitchell puts it, ‘Choosing the right gift-book is the art of the matchmaker – it must be tailored to the individual.’

As a bookseller, I’d like to think I’m quite good at choosing the right book for the right person. Recommending books to customers always involves asking what they like rather than forcing your favourite book of the moment on them. Although there was a rather sad instance of failure recently. A good customer of ours came in, going on and on about how much he liked Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace etc. When he asked me for a recommendation, instead of suggesting someone as obvious and perfect as Paul Auster, some spirit of perversity in me made me suggest Jane Gardam. Whoops. He read Old Filth, came back and said he’d give it 7 out of 10. ‘It’s a bit like meeting someone on a train,’ he said. ‘Quite interesting, but not very.’ On seeing my crestfallen expression, he remarked, palliatively, ‘I think I’ll give it to my mum though. I’m sure she’ll like it.’

I had hoped that he might find something remarkable and unusual in reading a book by an old eccentric English woman, rather than all this male American novelist stuff. But obviously not. Next time, I’ll suggest Paul Auster.

Point being, books are harder to give away than one might suppose. But here are three suggestions for next time you want to buy someone a book. And it’s not really too late to give it in the spirit of World Book Night, if you get your skates on.

1. Buy a book that’s really beautiful.

You could get a lovely edition of a classic, such as one of these particularly resplendent F Scott Fitzgeralds. Or one of those little Slightly Foxed books, which I think are best described as old-school. If something’s a limited edition (as with the Slightly Foxed) all the better. Of course, if money and time aren’t issues, then going for a first edition of a seminal work is always going to be a winner.

And there are also new beautiful books. They’re could be from small publishers or a beautiful art book. My favourite is still this Ravilious one (which I first wrote about here). The thing about art books is that people feel less pressured to sit down and read them cover to cover, they can leaf through them and put them out on display somewhere. Like a coffee table. They can be rather dear, though.

2. Buy a book that’s really new.

If you know what sort of books they love, or what sort of thing they’re interested in, then find out what’s really new and really good and buy them that. Chances are they won’t have got round to buying it for themselves yet. And there’s always a bit of a buzz about good new books that makes it feel rather exciting when you’re given one. The big new book of the moment is probably Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, or for those more novelistically inclined, Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar.

3. Buy a book that you absolutely loved.

Now there is a caveat to this one. They may well not love the book as much as you did. This will be doubly upsetting for you because 1. You’ll think they’re ungrateful and 2. You’ll either think they’re stupid for not loving it, or else you might wonder if your taste isn’t as impeccable as you’d assumed.

I’d suggest only doing this for someone who’s rather special to you, because they’ll probably understand how much that book means to you so, most importantly, they’ll preserve your feelings and tell you they love it (even if they don’t), and also, even if they don’t love it, I expect they’ll still feel rather special to have been given something that meant something to you. Of course I can’t advise on this one, other than to try to pick something relatively obscure. If it’s not a new book, there’s a good chance they’ll already have it. And if it’s not a beautiful edition, then they probably don’t want another copy. It’s a very personal choice – and I’d love to know what you’d all give. My choice would most probably be A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam (which I’ve written about here.)

And the best book I’ve ever received as a present? That would be the set of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Letters – first editions! – that my mum gave me for my twenty-first birthday. I was writing a dissertation on her and was absolutely obsessed. And, even in my rubbish photo, you can see that they’re perfectly beautiful.

The Joy of Jane Gardam

January 24, 2011

I wish that we could all be more like Jane Gardam.

I finished her most recent book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, with utter delight. I absolutely adore her writing.

If I see anyone so much as glance at it in the bookshop, I can’t help but gush, ‘Oh I’ve just finished that book and I absolutely loved it. I adored it. It’s so wonderful. It’s just so brilliant.’

They look slightly alarmed. Calm down missy, their expressions seem to say, no need for histrionics.

Sometimes they are so alarmed that they buy a copy (keep the crazy girl happy, she might get dangerous). Sometimes they smile and nod, until I back away. And sometimes they ask me why I love it so much.

But it’s terribly difficult to pin it down precisely. It’s hard to work out quite why Gardam’s writing is so appealing. Is it her sense of humour, her old-fashionedness, her sympathetic characters, her astute observations? Why is it so very funny?

What it all boils down to, I think, is that it is exceptionally honest. Sentences are short, sharp, to the point. Each word is the most accurate, the most fitting, the most perfect word. Her main character, Elisabeth, is admirably no-nonsense. She doesn’t waffle. She sees through difficult situations and gets on with things. And all this pared-down honesty makes it really rather funny.

Take this scene, for instance, in which Elisabeth is getting a haircut in Hong Kong:

The hairdresser preened above her head.

‘Is it for an occasion?’

‘I don’t know. Well, yes, I’m going out tonight.’

The hairdresser smiled and smiled, dead-eyed. Elisabeth had the notion that somewhere there was dislike.

‘Would you like colour?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Would you like to be more seriously red?’

‘No. No, not at all.’ (Am I making sense?) ‘Just wash my hair, please. Take the aeroplane out of it.’

Aeroplane out of it.’ Silly giggle.

Elisabeth knows exactly what is going on, exactly what the hairdresser’s thinking, behind her preening and questions and smiles. She can sense the dislike, yet she remains polite; she doesn’t get exasperated, but retains her composure, takes charge of the situation, and issues clear instructions: ‘Just wash my hair, please.’

It’s very understated and I find it very funny. The humour simmers away through the short sentences, a little bubble escaping every now and again but never really having a chance to burst through. It reminds me of having the giggles in a Maths lesson – holding my breath, pinching my arm, trying desperately hard to think of something else, stifling the laughter as much as is humanly possible. But knowing that at some point, it will explode.

And so here is a rather different scene. Much later in the book, Elisabeth has an encounter with her husband’s clerk, who happens to be a dwarf, and who happens to know about a rather incriminating love affair she had just before she married her husband:

‘No! Get out! Go away!’

He took off the broad brown hat and sat down on the red chair and looked at her from across the room.

‘Go away. I hate you.’

He twirled his shoes, regarded them and, without looking at her, said, ‘I’ve come to apologise. I dealt you the Five of Clubs. It was a mistake. I seldom make a mistake, and I have never apologised for anything before, being of a proud nature.’

She watched him.

‘The Five of Clubs means “a prudent marriage not for love”.’

She watched him.

‘I am very much attached to your husband. I saw only your faithlessness. It affected the pack. I was wrong.’

‘You were always wrong. You stole his watch once.’

He became purple in the face with rage and said, ‘Never! He gave it to me when I had nothing. It was all he possessed. He trusted me. It was to save my life.’

‘You are cruel!’

‘Here is a telephone number you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’

‘I don’t need your help.’

He sighed and put out a hand to his hat and she thought, He may have a knife. He could kill me. He is a troll from a stinking pit.

But he brought out of the hat only the pack of cards, looked at it, then put it away.

This time Elisabeth loses her calm. Her hysteria might be childish and over-the-top but it is still honest. Her sentences remain short and to the point: ‘I hate you. You are cruel. I don’t need your help.’

And Gardam manages to balance, perfectly, Elisabeth’s anger with the dwarf’s placidity. Until, that is, he becomes ‘purple’ with rage. Perhaps this is when a little bubble of laughter might escape. The tension builds and builds, and then I find I am in complete hysterics at the climax:

He is a troll from a stinking pit.

Ha ha ha ha ha. (I actually really did just choke quite painfully on some water I was half-way through swallowing.)

Elisabeth is often in situations in which she is confronted by a certain code. The code of the hairdresser, for instance, in which the hairdresser fawns over her – preening, asking so many questions, giggling in a girlish ‘silly’ way. Or the code of the dwarf, ‘I dealt you the Five of Clubs.’ ‘Here is a telephone number that you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’ All very cryptic. All hinting about something that isn’t said, some information that is missing. Whose phone number is it? Why will it be to her advantage? What on earth does he mean by the Five of Clubs? (Well that, at least, he explains.)

Gardam tells us that Elisabeth was at Bletchley Park during the war. She is particularly adept at cracking codes. And it is this knowledge of codes that carries her through life. It enables her to see through situations and people. She can tell that the hairdresser’s smile is fake, ‘dead-eyed’. She cuts through all the questions with her clear instructions. She can’t be bothered with her giggles and preening. And likewise with the dwarf, in spite of being scared of him, she doesn’t indulge his cryptic messages, she merely ‘watched him,’ and then tells him, ‘You are cruel.’

It is as though she cracks their codes and at the same time chooses not to use them. She will continue to speak plain English and just jolly well get on with it.

And there is the honesty. The piercing through all the waffling, distracting codes. Elisabeth doesn’t mess about. She gets straight to the heart of things. And perhaps it is this juxtaposition between Elisabeth’s matter-of-factness and the other character’s complex codes that makes it so very funny.

I read an interview that Jane Gardam did for the Guardian, six years ago. It begins with a story of her childhood dream of being a writer.

‘I just knew I would be a writer,’ she says. ‘It just seemed the only sensible thing to do.’ As a child, she scribbled secret stories which she hid in the chimney in her room. ‘Then I got chicken pox. In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill. They lit a fire. My hand went up and I brought down cinders. Never mind. It wasn’t much good, I shouldn’t think.’

This is so utterly Jane Gardam. She knew she would be a writer because ‘it just seemed the only sensible thing to do’. And when she encounters her first major setback – all her stories going up in smoke – she doesn’t dwell on it, angst over it, pine and long for what has been lost. ‘Never mind’, she says. Better just get on with it.

‘Never mind’ is the philosophy that seems to underlie all her writing. ‘Never mind all this,’ Elisabeth seems to be thinking all the time. ‘Just cut my hair, please.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Never mind all this fussing,’ she seems to be saying. It’s chin-up, soldier on. It’s very British.

But sadly, it feels like that attitude belongs to a Britain of the past. Wartime Britain. Make-do and mend. It belongs to a grandparent, rather than a teenager. How I wish it could be a bigger part of Britain today! Wouldn’t it be terrific? Wouldn’t we all be terribly brave and good and nobody would read any ghastly misery memoirs?

But there we go. Best not to dwell on it. Never mind. I shall just have to start reading another Jane Gardam novel straight away.

The Funny Thing About Christmas Books

December 13, 2010

Christmas has very definitely arrived at the bookshop. Crowds of people pulse into the little shop, clotting around tables in order to pick up fistfuls, armfuls, bagfuls of books, leaving the till ringing, pumped full of its pecuniary lifeblood.

For the bookseller, lunch-breaks are a fond memory, wrapping skills are at a premium, and – most satisfyingly – so is good advice. For this is the time when bookselling expertise comes into its own.

As Christmas inches closer, shoppers look increasingly desperate. By Christmas Eve, some customers will be looking so unbelievably stressed, I will worry that if they don’t find the right present within the next five minutes then they might crumple into a heap on the floor, crying, slowly rocking to and fro. Being able to point the shopper in the direction of a good present for Auntie Betty, cousin Mavis or son George is particularly rewarding when one feels one has staved off, if not an ambulance, then at least a valium or two.

But there is one situation that never fails to surprise me:

‘Please can you help me, I need to buy a present for my son.’

‘OK. How old is he?’


‘And what sort of books does he enjoy reading?’

Silence. The person appears to be trying to examine a spot on the top right of their forehead. ‘Oh, well, he doesn’t really read books.’

‘Not any books?’

‘No. Well, I mean he used to when he was younger. He loved the Lord of the Rings. But since university and getting a job, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a book.’

‘What sort of work does he do?’

‘Oh he’s in the city.’

‘Right, perhaps a book on economics or the financial crisis?’ I offer.

‘Oh no, he’s not really interested in any of that.’

‘Well what is he interested in?’

‘He loves The X Factor. And he plays football every Saturday.’

Then why, I long to ask, why are you buying him a book? Is it because we’re the only shop near your house that’s still open after five thirty? Is it because you feel some sort of urge to continue educating him in a positive way? Is it because he’s already got all the X Factor merchandise, and ten pairs of football socks?

Of course the details vary, but again and again, customers get utterly stuck trying to buy a book for someone who doesn’t read books. But publishers have cannily come up with a solution to this Yuletide problem … humour books.

From the end of September onwards, mini hardbacks and tiny paperbacks begin to trickle into the shop. Priced between £2.99 and £12.99, each one will illicit at least a passing chuckle from a Christmas shopper. At the bottom end are titles such as Don’ts for Husbands and at the top end (although I worry that perhaps that makes them sound a little highbrow) are titles like Sexually I’m More of a Switzerland – a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books.

In the instance above, I would bring the lady over to a table crammed full of these little books and point out ones like A Simples Life, the faux-autobiography of the meerkat from the telly adverts; Delete this at your Peril, a collection of spoof replies to spam emails; and perhaps even I Could Go On … unpublished letters to the Telegraph, the follow-up to last year’s success, Am I Alone in Thinking.

I’m pretty sure that the lady would have a little giggle at them and would then buy the meerkat book for her son, perhaps picking up a Don’ts for Husbands as a stocking-filler too. On Christmas Day, I expect that the son’s immediate disappointment on being given a book would be relieved by seeing the friendly face of the meerkat, his stalwart companion from X Factor ad breaks. He’d probably have a little flick through and then put it next to his loo, to be opened in future idle moments of constipation.

I’m not sure what it is that offends me about humour books. Perhaps there’s a rather unattractive element of bookish snobbishness. ‘You mean you’d rather buy this rubbish over Tolstoy?’ a little bit of my brain scorns. But I’d like to think it’s more of a feeling of mournfulness for a lost book. These pages will never be read and loved and cherished in the way that books deserve.

People who read and love books rarely even glance at these little humour books. The history nut will be drooling over Neil MacGregor’s stunning A History of the World in 100 Objects, or Amanda Foreman’s latest tome A World on Fire. Literary biography enthusiasts will be poring over Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy, or looking at How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s unusual biography of Montaigne. For poetry lovers there’s the stunning new Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, or Don Patterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fiction readers are utterly spoilt for choice – once they’ve negotiated their way through the latest Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, and the Booker shortlist, there are also several recently published collections of letters and diaries – like those of Saul Bellow, for instance. If someone were to give one of them the meerkat book, they’d treat it like a slap in the face.

Occasionally a customer might say to me, while he or she is somewhat guiltily watching me zap piles of expensive books for them at the till, that it must be hard for me to resist all the books, when constantly surrounded by them. It really is hard. There are so many brilliant books, especially at this time of year. I’m trying to whittle down a Top Ten for the Spectator’s Arts blog, and finding it incredibly tricky to limit myself to just ten good books.

And, perhaps because I spend all day among them, I love buying books as Christmas presents for friends and family. Over the weeks I realise that X would love that particular book, and Y might enjoy another. But, of course, there are some friends of mine who don’t share my love of books. That’s when I go and buy panettones, or chocolates, or clothes, or jewellery, or something else from the multitude of possible Christmas presents that are arrayed over our High Streets, markets and the internet. I don’t just decide to get them a silly little ‘loo’ book.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps humour books really are essential to surviving Christmas.

For many, Christmas is rather a stressful occasion. Adults going ‘home’ to their parents for the day, or a few days, swiftly regress to acting like teenagers. Couples argue over which set of parents they’ll spend it with; siblings who haven’t seen each other for months are forced together to pull crackers over mince pies and end up sniping at each other; young children get overexcited and exhausted and start crying by the time it’s the Queen’s Speech, having already jealously trampled on toys that their cousin/sister/mum’s best friend’s son has been given.

Yes it’s a time for families to be happy and cosy together, but the reality is that many families are rather complicated and this yanking everyone together for a day can be disastrous.

Perhaps this is when humour books come to the rescue. Perhaps, after a heavy Christmas lunch, when everyone’s run out of things to say and  you realise you’re stuck with them, in the middle of nowhere, until the following morning, then you can open something like A Simples Life (the meerkat book) and find yourself giggling.

In the post-Christmas lunch slump it’s unlikely that you’d get very far with anything more heavyweight, partly from gluttony-provoked exhaustion, partly from wine followed by port and brandy, partly from children careering around the room either on sugar highs or in tears, and partly due to the endless adult interruptions – ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ from the mother, ‘Did you say something?’ from the grandparent, ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ from the father. This is not the time to start War and Peace, or even Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy. It is, in fact, the perfect time to dip into something reasonably mindless, something from which you don’t mind being disturbed, and something that might even make you respond to the interruption mid-laugh, or at least mid-smirk.

In light of this, perhaps I’d be inclined to buy Parlour Games for Modern Families, a rather charming book in a Cath Kidston sort of way. I’d hope that rather than trying to hide with one’s nose in a second-rate book while half-listening to a painfully limping conversation, this little book might prove sufficient to cajole everyone into a game of Charades, or Blind Man’s Buff, or even – and I expect this one might go down the best – Murder in the Dark.

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.

Autumnal books

September 27, 2010

The weather has turned. Now summer is definitely over and autumn has set in, with its premonition of winter cold.

At this time of year I have two contradictory impulses. One is to hibernate, to protect myself from the cold. We brought our avocado tree inside from the terrace, knowing that now it needs a bit of warmth and care to survive. When I was very young and used to have a pet tortoise, this was the time of year when we used to bring ‘Fred’ – who we later learnt was in fact a female tortoise – into our garage, tuck her up in a cardboard box of hay and let her sleep until the spring. (I think tortoise care has become slightly more high-tech since the eighties.)

And so I too want to be tucked away, under piles of blankets, jumpers and other warm things, have long hot baths, eat porridge for breakfast, soups and stews for dinner, drink endless cups of hot things – toddies, tea, coffee – no longer iced fizzy drinks. It becomes that much harder to get up in the morning, as the nights get longer, and that much more tempting to spend the evening in, watching a film, reading a book, rather than putting on many layers of clothes, finding an umbrella, venturing out only to get wet feet and an upturned brolly within ten paces of the front door.

But this time of year is also the beginning of something new. It’s when everyone’s back from holidays, starting a new school year, a new Jewish year, new jobs, new flats. It’s the time of year to socialise, to cluster together with friends – dark afternoons in pubs, rainy days playing board games, big lunches and crisp walks. There is a glut of birthdays – parties – and then the run up to Christmas with even more parties. It’s the time to go out and celebrate and dance and drink, perhaps relying rather too heavily on a whisky jacket for warmth.

But the book world is one of the few places where these two contradictory impulses can be happily brought into synthesis.

For the start of October sees the Frankfurt Bookfair – a jam-packed few days during which 300,000 publishers and agents from all over the world meet each other for hectic half-hours to pitch books, deal rights and otherwise shape the near-future of publishing. It’s a new start for books.

And it’s the best time of year for published books. All the houses put out their biggest hits, hoping to get reviews and rising sales in the build-up to Christmas.

It’s the most exciting time to be working in a bookshop. Every week, innocuous cardboard boxes are unpacked to reveal beautiful new hardbacks, glistening with promise. Ah yes this is the one I was reading about in the Guardian last week. Oh, wow, this is the follow up to XXX! Gosh, this one looks beautiful … I suppose the book that arrived on the greatest wave of anticipation was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – ‘launched,’ as The Sunday Times rather brazenly put it, ‘on a tsunami of hype’.

And it’s also the busiest time of year. The bookshop is at least twice (usually three or four times) as busy in the few weeks before Christmas as it is the rest of the year. People want more help, everyone has presents to buy – ‘What can I get my father-in-law?’ ‘What should I get my four-year-old niece?’ ‘Help! What can I get for my boss?’ All questions which come pouring in, leaving one to proffer up an array of books, while dashing between the somewhat fraught customers, wondering if there’ll be any books left to sell the following day. There’s a fantastic feeling of helpfulness. A feeling that, oh, this person has no idea what to buy and I can suggest something that might be perfect. And the grateful smiles and sincere thanks. (And the new-found pleasing dexterity at wrapping books up.)

This all ties in with the instinct of excitement at a new start, at a fast-approaching Christmas. But what is so perfect about books is that they are ideal cold-weather friends.

No more ‘light summer reading’, ‘beach reads’, ‘airport paperbacks’. No no no. Now is the time of year when one can spend time and concentration really reading. Time for new meaty books. Or time to go back to the Classics. Or the Russians. Time to read books that are really long, because now is the time when there is time to read them. Now is the time when you might wake up on a Sunday to pouring rain and really can’t be bothered to leave the house. The time when you make a pot of coffee and get back into bed and spend hours reading because you have a sneaky feeling that the rest of London is still in bed too.

And this impulse to read more, to ‘curl up with a good book’ is perfectly timed, as it is just now that all the best books are being released. So yes there is the new Jonathan Franzen, and there is also the new David Grossman, John le Carré and Peter Ackroyd. It is also time for many of last year’s hardbacks to go into paperback – so we have the new Orhan Pamuk, the new J.M. Coetzee, the new Alice Munro … There are invariably hundreds of new biographies – this year there’s Tony Blair (of course), Stephen Fry, Deborah Devonshire, Chris Mullin to name just a few. And all the new meaty hardback non-fiction, State of Emergency, Them & Us, Mao’s Great Famine, the new Martin Gilbert, the book about Lucian Freud …

It’s so exciting!

And perhaps it’s the one time of year where I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of desire for a Kindle. How wonderful to look and touch all these beautiful new books – because these ones are, really, beautiful. How marvellous to get back to one’s flat and make it look that much cosier with these new books lining the shelves. Heaven to wake up and see them all sitting there in a row, asking to be read, waiting for you to look outside at the rain and offering you such a blissful alternative. I don’t care if it’s a heavy book, because I don’t intend on lugging it around with me any further than from the sofa to my bed – I’m not going on holiday. And I don’t want to go on holiday. Why would anyone go on holiday now, when they can laze around such an inspiring, marvellous, wonderful winter bookland.

Boxer Beetle

September 6, 2010

I have just read a book called Boxer Beetle. I suppose this is an unusual choice as I don’t particularly like beetles or boxing.

But the book is written by a chap called Ned Beauman and, while I can hardly call him a close friend, or even really a friend, he did once punt a friend and me along the backs when I was visiting her at Cambridge.

Ned is slightly younger than me, and probably slightly cooler as well. What I remember most about him from that singular boating encounter was that he had painted his fingernails black, was surprisingly good at punting and had quite a few eccentric anecdotes to add to the conversation.

So I was intrigued when this book arrived in the bookshop. How fantastic, I thought, how wonderful that he’s got himself published. I was also pleased to come across some good reviews of Boxer Beetle, like this one in the Guardian.

I decided that buying a copy and reading it was the least I could do.

Now some people, when I told them I was reading a first novel by someone younger than me, said things along the lines of ‘How sickening, how galling, aren’t you jealous?’

I wish that I could say, with all honesty, no.  But of course I’m jealous. Of course I feel somewhat sickened by the idea that someone has already made it, when I haven’t (yet). And when I first picked up the book, my excitement was tinged with a horrid feeling of dread. But I’m pleased to say that as soon as I began to read it, all jealousy evaporated. Here is the first line:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forth-third birthday party.

It’s a great opening line. It’s unusual. It’s funny. It’s quite strange. It’s intriguing. But it’s also something that I would never have written. I have never imagined any of Goebbels’ birthday parties and I don’t think I’d ever dream up a character who would.

This line made me realise straight away that Boxer Beetle might be fantastic and imaginative and funny but it is completely different from what I’ve written and from anything that I might write in the future. (Not that my writing isn’t fantastic, imaginative and funny.) If it were about the 7/7 bombings, or about a young artist travelling around India, or had parallels with E.M. Forster, then, well, then I might have ripped it up in desperation/misery/fury, but I will never write a book about boxing, beetles, or Goebbels. So I was able to switch of the competitive part of me (which mostly surfaces when playing tennis) and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.

And I did enjoy it. It is funny. It is peculiar. It is pacey. It is clever. It is rammed full of meticulously researched digressions. I particularly liked the unexpectedly detailed descriptions, which are casually dropped in and utterly transform the scene.

There was something so submissive and exhausted about the place, thought Erskine, like a thin farmer munching on grass because his own fat cattle have bullied him out of his hot dinner again.

Ned’s imagination really shines throughout the book. I kept thinking that it would be extraordinary to see the world in the similes that he throws in again and again.

The other real achievement is the ambitious architecture of the book – different characters and their plot lines are woven together with real skill. Ned begins with the story of ‘Fishy’, who smells unbearably strongly of fish, is a collector of Nazi memorabilia and spends his time either on Internet chat rooms or doing odd jobs for a dodgy property developer. Then there is ‘Sinner’, aka Seth Roach, an East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s. And finally there is Philip Erskine – a rich young man of the 1930s, who is interested in eugenics and particularly interested in the case of Sinner because of his unbelievable strength despite being small and Jewish and having a right foot with only four toes.

And somehow Ned manages to bring them all together in a narrative that spans over a hundred years (there is a brief chapter about the end of the nineteenth century) and it isn’t confused at all.

On the few occasions in the book when I felt something grate, it was generally a precocity, an arrogance, a pretension, which could be quite annoying. For instance, when Fishy is on the internet chat rooms, he gets a response to a question from someone with the screenname ‘nbeauman’. Ha ha, not. Paul Auster did it twenty years ago. And it wasn’t even all that clever then. It’s a sort of – oh look, this is so witty and post-modern – but actually it just feels unnecessary and a bit smug.

But that grating brings to mind something I came across at university. At Oxford, and I expect at most other universities, a much greater proportion of Firsts are awarded to boys than to girls. And the powers that be thought this was probably because boys have a habit of being so much more arrogant than girls, especially in writing. Perhaps Boxer Beetle does have an underlying arrogance, but that probably comes across as confidence most of the time, which usually gets very well rewarded indeed. Just think of Martin Amis, for instance.

I conclude that if I am to make it in the book world, I shall have to grow a pair. Watch out.

The Sea, The Sea

September 3, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted for a little while. I’ve been on holiday in Jersey, happily surrounded by the sea. And by rather a fortuitous coincidence, I happened to be reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. Thanks to Jude Law.

One day, a few months ago, Jude Law comes into the bookshop and I find myself serving him. He takes it upon himself to make conversation and says that he is reading a newly published collection of Iris Murdoch’s wartime letters, A Writer at War.

I am completely floored by the encounter, and stand there bright red, grinning and staring at him. I may have bad facial recognition (see this post for a rather embarrassing encounter) but there is no mistaking Jude Law. ‘Iris Murdoch,’ I think, ‘I must find something interesting to say about Iris Murdoch.’

But, as it happens, I don’t need to, as Jude Law continues to talk about her without needing any of my input. Apparently she is his favourite author and he has read absolutely everything that she has written. He says that she is so modern, and I’m so dazzled that I am unable to come back with anything other than, ‘Yes, um, so modern.’

I’m quite fond of this little story. It’s one of those stories that I use to try and prove that working in a bookshop is not only really fun but also rather glamorous. But it came back to haunt me the other day, when I was recounting it to a new acquaintance at a dinner party.

This young lady was unimpressed by my anecdote. She found it hard to believe that I had nothing to say about Iris Murdoch. (Mind you, she didn’t have a whole pile to say about her either.) I tried to reassure her that I had indeed read a couple of her books – but annoyingly it was a little while ago and I couldn’t say very much about them. My case was worsened when someone else started talking to me about Lee Child, and I found myself chatting to him about this rather less highbrow thriller writer and his character Jack Reacher.

‘I see you are better versed in Lee Child than Iris Murdoch,’ she said, somewhat archly.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t actually read any Lee Child, but this didn’t seem to help things.

So I resolved to read some more Iris Murdoch. Frankly I love my Jude Law story, and I’d hate to be too scared to retell it for fear of being criticised for my lack of Murdochian wherewithal. The next time that happens I’ll be able to drop in something about Prospero or Buddhism or something else suitably silencing.

Well yes Prospero and Buddhism do feature in The Sea, The Sea but so do boiled onions and the flavour combination of almonds and apricots. And, strangely, I found myself eating these two rather idiosyncratic dishes while I was in Jersey.

Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, The Sea, is a famous old theatre director who decides to retreat from his London life of fame and glory to a funny little house by the sea. He has rather eccentric tastes in food – insisting, for instance, that boiled onions are a dish fit for a King – and a great deal of unfinished business with a menagerie of ex-lovers.

The book is written as though Charles is writing his memoirs and indeed the Prospero thing is because Charles (in his typically self-inflated, self-absorbed view) compares himself to Prospero abjuring his magic and retreating from the world. I imagine Iris Murdoch having a little snigger at the image of such a silly pompous man trying to look sufficiently magisterial as Prospero, with cloak and staff.

The book is about retreating from the world, or trying to. Because, inevitably, Charles doesn’t manage to retreat from the world – his world follows him up to the little house by the sea, so that as the book draws near its climax several people are staying with him – so many, in fact, that there isn’t room for them all in the house and one has to sleep outside.

But Iris Murdoch also gives us James – Charles’s cousin – who is a counterpoint to Charles throughout the book. He is a soldier turned Buddhist, who goes about his life in London with a great deal more composure that one imagines Charles has ever had. He has spent a great deal of time in Tibet, and has even mastered some ‘tricks’ from his time out there, such as being able to increase his body temperature just by sheer concentration. He pops up at different points in the novel and, just as Charles is always overblown, melodramatic, ridiculous, James is always calm, poised, focussed. He is no hermit – and indeed Charles’s theatre friends all take to him – but he is always slightly withdrawn, slightly removed from the situation. It is as though James has managed to retreat from the world while still being part of it. This is something in which Charles never succeeds.

I suppose that my little retreat from the world wasn’t entirely successful either. While I, like Charles, swam in the sea every day, went on long walks, and left my phone off most of the time, I also spent most of the time chatting away to, playing games with, and generally larking around with the fiancé’s family. And it was so much more fun doing everything with a big crowd of people, rather than in self-absorbed isolation. Luckily for me, the crowd of people wasn’t at all like the swarm of angry/loving/crazy exes, that invades Charles’s seaside house.

In fact, it was when I got back to London and was trying to get lots of things done, wandering the streets from cobbler to cleaner to bike fixer, without anybody to natter away to, that I felt momentarily alone.

I know that the anonymity of a city is a cliché, and so is the fact that this can result in urban life being a lonely experience. But this anonymity can also feel like a haven of solitude, something that can be reassuring and quite grounding. And so I agree with Iris, in her example of James as opposed to Charles.

Who needs to head off alone to a little house by the sea in order to retreat? All one needs to do is go for a walk through Soho, where  the cacophony of background noise can be rather soothing. And, if one really succeeds in zoning out, all that noise can sound just like the lapping of the waves of the sea.