The Lockdown Library Is Now Closing


As our poll-obsessed premier continues to loosen Lockdown I find my own fate inextricably blurred with the pandemic. After testing clear for COVID last week I am now venturing out on sorties (one to a vast, deserted supermarket, one to the canal and back), each a minor stroll, now both like climbing the North face of the Eiger.

I’m four weeks into my healing time (out of a proposed eight) and foolishly attempted a workout today. Usually I start with 60 pushups. Today I managed five. My muscle mass has been replaced by fatty sludge, the result of being told to alter my diet from Mediterranean (fish, salads) to – as my doctor gracefully put it – ‘shopping in those aisles you’ve probably never been down.’ Crisps, chocolate, mash, ready meals. I was warned I would drastically lose weight. I’ve put on 4 kilos.

Today, having done its job, all the junk food went out and has been mercifully replaced by fresh fish and greens once more. I was starting to feel like Morgan Spurlock. I also applied the same principals to the books I read in Lockdown, turfing out most of them as they were the kind of books you can only manage to read on morphine.

A few are worth mentioning. ‘From Crime to Crime’ by high court judge Richard Henriques, is readable purely because of the cases with which he was involved; Harold Shipman, Jamie Bulger, Jean Charles de Menezes, Jeremy Bamber and Jill Dando; a superstar roll-call. The most disturbing one, for me, was the case of the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers, a mass failure of duty from the police and especially the town councillors, who issued permits without checking and did nothing at all to prevent the tragedy, thus weaselling out of justice. Unfortunately Mr Henriques has a flat writing style and only covers the parts of each case that directly involve him. For the full case histories you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Betty Church mysteries by MRC Kasavian proved a massive disappointment. Everything I enjoyed about the cod-Victorian Sidney Grice books is absent in these village WWII mysteries, which ape MC Beaton (I’m not a fan of those, either, although I only sampled one). I fail to understand how this new series shows not a spark of the first incarnation’s elan.

It’s not all light reading round at Fowler Towers, of course. I’m currently tackling ‘Impostures’ by Al-Hariri, translated by Michael Cooperson, who had his work cut out for him, this book being famously untranslatable as it requires wit, creativity and ‘an ocean-deep reservoir of knowledge of history, literature and humanity.’ Phew.

It’s an Arabic classic in which shapeshifting rogue Abū Zayd al-Sarūji takes on fifty different personas in a series of picaresque adventures that have fun with different linguistic forms – for in order to disguise himself further our hero adopts distinct literary styles from Virginia Woolf to MLF (Multicultural London English, which has now replaced Cockney). The book is a challenge to read and really more of an outrageous literary exercise, but so far I’m thoroughly enjoying the mental stretch. I doubt you’d wish to read it in one go, though.

I started ‘The Book of Barely Imagined Beings’ years ago but came back to it in Lockdown. Caspar Henderson’s astonishing bestiary takes the reader from Axalotl to Zebrafish, exploring real creatures that exhibit properties you could not make up. His section on Iridogorgia Pourtaleshi (shells, basically) is riveting. One can see that the fascination with the ‘Alien’ films is largely connected to the strange life-cycles of real creatures. The book is stunningly designed to incorporate sidebars, and I may now have to rebuy it in hardback.

Not weird enough for you? Head over to Strange Attractor Press, where the darker corners of the world are explored. Ken Hollings is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer who seizes upon esoteric topics and worries them to death. Most of his books are published here.

‘Welcome to Mars’ is a set of interlinking theories about American suburbia, the bomb, brainwashing and aliens that surprisingly dovetails into an alarming portrait of mid 20th century US paranoia.

A tougher read is ‘The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime’, about the ways in which digital technology is impacting on human culture. It’s a freewheeling mindfeck that’s far-seeing, yet – like many similar books, I imagine – needs sudden urgent revision in the age of the virus. That’s not to stop you tackling it as many fascinating ideas emerge, but some avenues explored will have changed out of recognition.

Hollings has also written about the stars in ‘The Space Oracle’ and 1960 trash culture in ‘Inferno’, all from Strange Attractor. His books are like having a good cultural argument with an intelligent drunk in a pub.

On a lighter note I have bashed through some Golden Age classics that I found somewhat less than classic (a few disappointing Ngaio Marshes and an almost unreadable Eric Linklater). I wonder if I’m falling out of love with detecting toffs. I tried the two Neo-Jeeveses by Sebastian Faulkes (sterling) and Ben Schott (witty), and while non-canonical they’re Wodehose-simulacrum cheerer-uppers when you’re poorly. Faulkes wins on pot, Schott on one-liners, although Jeeves is a bit too clever for his own good.

I also read a lot of London history for research, and stumbled across a rather compelling historical whodunnit called ‘The Bloodless Boy’ by Robert J Lloyd. He’s based his detective on the real life of Robert Hooke, Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, and the architect of the new London being rebuilt after the Great Fire. There’s a sequel, too, ‘The Clockwork Assassins’. Lloyd gets the tone right and balances his language between then and now so that there’s a genuine sense of the past in his prose. The set-up (boys found drained of blood) is intriguing and avoids most of the usual pitfalls of historical fiction.

Right, back to work on my own book today…if the physical exercise is rubbish, the mental one may prove to be better. I always preferred heavy reading to a heavy workout.


21 comments on “The Lockdown Library Is Now Closing”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Blimey, I couldn’t manage 60 pushups when I was fit and 20, never mind now. It wasn’t just the hard work, it was also the sheer monotony. It would bore me into a coma.

    Sad to say, I think most of the books mentioned above would have the same effect. Though I must try the pseudo Wooster. I’m reading “We Don’t Go Back”- a watchers guide to folk horror which is excellent. It is a published blog about the aforementioned in films and TV plays such as M R James’s ghost stories, “The Wicker Man”, “Night of the Demon” and “Witchfinder General”. It’s by Howard David Ingham and I think would suit a lot of the people on here. For fiction, I am re-reading R F Delderfield’s “The Dreaming Suburb” which I am enjoying even more than the first time round about forty years ago.

    It so cheering to hear how you are getting back to normal.

  2. Thanks for the reading list – will certainly try the Robert J Lloyd / Robert Hooke crime novels.

    Lisa Jardine wrote a dazzling biography of Hooke whose rival Isaac Newton tried to bury his discoveries for decades
    so that even now he is fairly obscure.

    Her book is entitled ‘The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London’ and her other work is great too – even better than her father’s : Jacob (Ascent of Man) Bronowski.

    Best wishes for your recovery

  3. admin says:

    I have a good book on film folk horror, although its still quite a slender genre. The book could have benefited from opening out to include, say, ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and ‘I Know Where I’m Going’.

    Thanks for the Lisa Jardine rec. Mike Jay does similar things with obscure historical figures, and writes like a dream.

  4. Janet says:

    Amongst the reading I stocked up on for Lockdown were the few Bryant & May’s I hadn’t read. A few days ago I tucked myself up comfortably with The Lonely Hour. All seemed fine until I got to the 3rd page which announced ‘Bryant and May will return’ which I thought a bit odd, with a fairly random seeming paragraph on the right hand page, turning over was a page starting mid sentence. Having just returned from hospital I was starting to feel a bit disorientated by this. Then looking at the page numbers I found I was on p.417 with the following page 416 – the book being complete but having been bound entirely backwards! Do I have a great bibliographical rarity that I should get you sign? I’m tempted to hang on to it as I have never encountered this before – sections out of order or missing but not everything but the cover backwards – maybe it’s appropriate for a peculiar crime. Sympathise with the diet thing by the way, my partner though my diet sheet from the hospital was a spoof – snack of 5 jelly babies for example or advice to eat eclairs, cream cakes or doughnuts between meals. Hope you are getting on well

  5. admin says:

    Janet, I just discovered the downside of the diet thing too. My weight remained stable at 82kg, mid-range BMI for a guy over 6ft, but a great chunk of muscle mass has magically transformed into fat. Turning it back will require determination.

    I’ve never heard of the backward book – it’s a real one-off. There are collectors out there…

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    I have to recommend Count Arthur Strong’s new exciting mystery novel; ‘Codename Rattlesnake’ featuring Inspector Marsden of Scotland Yard. It’s available as a first class novel or as an amazing 2 CD (or is it CV?) read by the multi-voiced Count himself who plays all of the characters, including himself, himself. The story is fast paced and amazingly thrilling and that. Its like Sir Alastair McLean’s crossed with that bloke who couldn’t spell his name right – Ronald Lentil-Curry or possibly Dashiell Hairnet.
    Anyway, its a good read or listen (if you’ve bought the CV).

    Just thought you’d like to know

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Chris, what is the title of your film folk horror book

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops , I didn’t mean the message to end, I clicked the wrong thing. I have just got very interested in the folk horror mentioned above. I’m getting the DVDs of as many of the plays that are available. I found it wonderfully unsettling with great performances, esp by Anna Cropper as the lead. I’m sure you have seen it.

    Peter, thanks for the Arthur Strong tip-off. I will get the CD-I really like the character.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    I am quite sober-don’t know what the matter is with me tonight. The play is “Robin Redbreast” a “Play for Today” 1970.

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    A whole SIXTY press-ups? That’s more than a life-time!

  11. Andrew Holme says:

    We might have mentioned ‘Electric Eden’ by Rob Young on this site before. It’s certainly worth a revisit, if only for the section on the music in ‘The Wicker Man’. A CD well worth tracking down.

  12. SteveB says:

    Hi Admin, Im in a little bit the same situation as you – just got out of the mri machine 10 minutes ago!!
    Start with 10 pushups if you can then every day one more.
    Jim Kelly‘s WW2 books might interest you if you have time, also his ‚Death wore White‘ – guy murdered in car trapped in snowdrift with no footprints in the snow. A bit similar setup to one B&M book!
    Take care, I also put on weight by the way.
    Oh and I tested positive for Covid antibodies despite never having had any symptoms. Weird.

  13. Derek J Lewis says:

    If people are wondering about Count Arthur, try his take on ‘ask the family’ on YouTube. Smiling now thinking of it

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Still reading old tales again from Weird tales. Polished off a couple of Agatha Christie’s A Murder at the Vicarage and Elephants Can Remember, she really sarcastic about a number of her characters, I’d forgotten the dry wit. A good thing about Christie is anyone can be the killer, she is also very readable which is a lot harder than it looks, there are a lot of tedious books out there. I quite enjoyed them, but they have both gone into the big bag for charities. I’ve also been reading about Manchester, I’ve been trying to find the Saxon times but apart from the Nico Ditch, the Bowstones and the legend of Sir Tarquin there is precious little.


  15. Folk horror films and fiction are discussed at length in ‘Ghostland – In Search of a Haunted Country’ by Edward Parnell published recently. You can read the Contents page on Amazon (Look Inside !) to see if it appeals first.

  16. Jan says:

    I ‘ve wondered about that before Wayne the Romans build in Manchester have a big imput/ create Deansgate in a sense and don’t they culvert an underground river running parallel with Deansgate! Can’t really remember and isn’t there a Roman well up near the bridges so there’s some pretty ancient stuff around.

    The Anglo Saxons have a weird relationship with the Roman ruins though which of course were much more complete and intact in the AS period. Not big builders in stone the ASs they knock out a few churches but most of their stuff is built of wood and just fades away. Plus cos they had some pretty obvious issues about living within Roman left behind buildings they tend to push off else where. Just to be on the safe side. Who knows why?

    I never spell this right but now the battle of Brunabagh (sorry I know that spellings adrift) has been pretty much pinpointed on the Wirral theres little doubt the A.S.s were about and in some numbers. I think there’s been traces of them found in Thelwall (Of viaduct fame) recently maybe just not big in the City itself.
    How’s your toes?

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Count Arthur Strong – I wonder if he’s (as he said on a radio show) still a member of the ‘Saint Am’s Johnbliance’?

  18. snowy says:

    Wayne, there is what was intended to be a four volume ‘History of Manchester’ by John Whitaker, book one is all Romans. Book two is where the author gets to the Saxons…. after a bit more Romans and a brief appearance by Arthur, the well known furniture designer, hanger-around wizards, etc [skip to Chap. III] .

    But it comes with these warnings, it was published in 1775, it was written by a vicar in his spare time. So while his dates might be as good as they get, some of his conclusions might be a bit er… romantic/suspect.

    As an 18th C text it doef contain thoufands of obfolete fpellings which might drive you utterly infane. [Link is where links usually are.]

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, those “obfolete” spellings are easily dealt with by practice. Does that long s actually occur in the middle of words or just at the beginning/end of wordf?

  20. snowy says:

    My inner child would probable respond:

    “Oh, ffs! It feems the fhit sucking fhit baftards ftuffed the fodding thingf in all over the sucking fhop.”

    [But we do try not to let it out of the box under the stairs very often].

    A more measured response would be that, no-one it appears has ever found a single ‘codex’ that lays outs a set of rules for long and short s. People have tried to construct simple rules based on past examples, but were stymied by variations by period and differing local custom/practice. Fortunately it eventually fell out of use:

    “The introduction of the round s, instead of the long, is an improvement in the art of printing equal, if not superior, to any which has taken place in recent years, and for which we are indebted to the ingenious Mr. Bell, who introduced them in his edition of the British Classics…” [Bell was a publisher of the ‘Literature for the Masses’ – ‘Stack-‘Em High Sell-‘Em-Cheap’ school].

  21. Ian Luck says:

    ‘MLE’ – That’s the kind of faux West Indian dialect that makes the (often very middle class white) speaker sound like an eight year old crap rapper. It’s a form of speaking that demands to be ignored. It’s usually coupled with the intensely annoying ‘Antipodean interrogative?’, whereby every phrase sounds like a question? When faced with this, as I have, I take the line of the camera operator when filming ‘The Usual Suspects’ identification parade scene. Take after take, Benicio Del Toro got more and more unintelligible saying his line, and in frustration, the cameraman says:”In English, please!” This got a great annoyed response from Del Toro, and was left in the final cut. If spoken to in MLE, my response is simply: “In English, please.”

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