Why I Am Not Sally Rooney

Christopher Fowler
May feels like a quiet time for books, although my reading continues at the same throughout the year. According to a GQ survey, men only account for a fifth of literary fiction readers. In 2000 men wrote 61% of the top-selling hardbacks. Now it's lower than 43%. Changing demographics, cultural diversity and female readers' preferences for emotional stories over tales of POW camp escapes have altered the landscape. Although I am less interested in reading about sisterhood, emotional healing and trans Gen Z problems, it doesn't make me Jeremy Clarkson. And the authors should demographically sign to the readership. A shrinking market is fine by me. I prefer to swim in a smaller pond anyway, and there are too many other good stories to be told. Here's what I've been reading this week. John Brunner's 'The Society of Time' is a reissue of his classic time travel tales. Best are a trilogy of connected stories set in a Spanish London after the Armada's victory resulted in a Catholic Britain. The Society polices time travel to stop its abuse by miscreants, not always with success. There are two other stories in the volume, pleasant but negligible. Brunner's book brought me to 'The Kingdoms' from Natasha Pulley, all of whose innovative, baroque novels I've loved. She's a time traveller too, believable in 'The Watchmaker of Filigree Street', fantastical in 'The Bedlam Stacks', and although her storytelling ability is as acute as ever, this time she lost me a little. I was fine with two time frames set around the Battle (won or lost) of Trafalgar, cool with being time-catapulted repeatedly via a Scottish lighthouse (new or ruined). I was less enamoured of Joe, the amnesiac lead, who didn't involve me as a character, especially as he's dormant for the first half of the book. Shooting Galapagos tortoises to prove a tenet of time travel was a shark-jumper for me, but the keenness of Pulley's prose will keep me returning. And the difficulties were probably all mine - I tend to overthink time travel and get horribly confused. 'The Battle Of London: 1939-45' is in expert hands with historian Jerry White, whose previous volumes have illuminated so much London's past. The Blitz story is a familiar one, of course, but White's deep dive into the details of Germany's bombing campaign against the city pays dividends. London's front line services were prepared for intensive bombing attacks because they had trained during the 'Phoney War'. Wardens were also able to react with celerity to bombings was because they were all born locally. They had all been to the same schools at different times and knew the family histories of everyone in the neighbourhood. Knowing who needed help and where they were likely to be saved many lives. But the work was gruesome. They located one old friend under rubble who had been turned into a doormat by the bombardment. It calls to mind 'The Quartermaster's Stores', with its lyric, 'they scraped him off the tarmac like a dab of strawberry jam'. A general lack of hysteria and determination to get on helped enormously, although everyone agreed that the shelters were a scandal, along with the treatment of the newly homeless. As ever, the real problems came from red tape and council intransigence, not from those on the street.      


Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 11:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

‘Quartermaster ‘s Stores’ was sung by us on long car journeys from a very young age, but I think your quote is from ‘he jumped without a parachute from 40,000 feet’, which wasn’t deemed suitable until much older.

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 11:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks - I'll try the Battle of London which looks interesting

In Mother London by Michael Moorcock (if I remember correctly) an elderly stage magician / mind reader walks over mounds of rubble in the Blitz and locates trapped people below by reading their minds. Moorcock is very uneven (he
claims to have dashed off whole novels in 3 days) but this one is possibly his finest.

I know an old man of 94 who can clearly see in his mind's eye a German bomber in 1942 dropping bombs on a street a few hundred yards away and knocking him off his feet. The all clear siren was premature and the bomber was flying low. I suppose such memories are now close to vanishing forever

Roger (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 17:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, Cornelia, ‘they scraped him off the tarmac like a dab of [or "lump in"] strawberry jam’ is from "He Jumped from 40,000 feet". The Quartermaster's "eyes are dim, I cannot see" for a variety of possible reasons. One implication of some verses is that the QM has stolen and sold anything worth bothering with in the stores.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 18:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

So, once again, I am looking up something I've never heard of - the song The Quartermaster's Store. I found it on Youtube (of course), and sang along with the three stanzas and chorus (lyrics on the screen). I had the feeling I'd heard the song once somewhere, but I don't know why. I can understand, Cornelia, why you sang it on long car trips. Anyway, thank you. Maybe I can learn some of the lyrics and sing to myself while pulling weeds!!

Christopher Fowler Wed, 18/05/2022 - 21:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I guess the days of singing on long car journeys are over, and kids now spend their time gurning into their phones. Not that I'm nostalgic for in-car singing!

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 21:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I can't imagine why, Chris. Nobody is hitting or complaining about anyone else hitting a fellow passenger, starting an argument, or whining about food or the length of the journey - unless the song is 99 bottles of beer, of course. I learned the Quartermaster's Stores at Girl Guides and have since run across it in other group settings.

Jo+e (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 21:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You don't necessarily have to learn any lyrics for the Quartermaster Stores Barbara. You can simply make up rhymes, as many soldiers and boy scouts have around many camp fires. The verses becoming ruder as they progressed from cubs to squaddies. Quite a lot of pressure to think of a good rhyme when you're 7, it's your turn next and your wellingtons are melting.
There was Bar, Bar....
You can think of the rest when weeding.

He Jumped Without a Parachute is to the tune of John Browns Body. I think he was eventually spread on toast by the vicar, which could be good or bad depending on your religious views. But he ain't gonna jump no more.

On a slightly different tack and talking of the Blitz Spirit I do wonder what would happen if England was now in the same position as Ukraine. Would we be the bloody determined Londoners, fighting in the streets and defending every inch?

Or would everyone have run off?

Jo+e (not verified) Wed, 18/05/2022 - 22:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh by the way I very much enjoyed the vegetable soup/jelly babies/colostomy origami Comments previously. As ever they are educational, inspirational and somewhat bonkers.

I'll never look at a jelly baby in the same way. Or possibly vegetable soup.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 00:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks Jo+e, When I looked again online about the lyrics, I learned about the invented rhymes. I'll probably stick to the mice, rats, and bread. Otherwise I might be so busy trying to think up a rhyme that I pull up a plant by mistake!

Jo W (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 07:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

# Helen+Martin
Hi Helen, hope you and Ken are well?
Oh those days of long, are we there yet? car journeys. Singalongs stopped many a “ that’s it! No holiday, we’re turning round and going home!” shouts from ‘imself. Ever tried one side of the car singing Pack up your Troubles while the other side sing it’s a Long Way to Tipperary? That brings its own arguments.

Joel (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 18:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

we did sing-alongs...and my mom would have a box full of new coloring books, puzzles, etc for the long drive to wherever we were camping on that vacation...thankfully, i was always an avid reader, so always made sure i picked up a bunch of books from the library before we left...i have always found time travel stories fascinating, and then, recently, it seems i enjoy the books where history got off track because a different country won the war, or that high muckity muck was assassinated...i forget what the genre or type of story is called, but very enjoyable as well...like the series "the man in the high castle" on amazon...i too wonder what americans would do if we were attacked...how many people would round up "foreigners" and either put them in camps or outright kill them...just nuts

Marty (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 18:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

About ten years ago I was listening to some young women talking about the aftermath of a subway bombing in London. The consensus was that the Brits were wimps for fretting over this "small" tragedy, whereas we in the US had tasted real suffering on 9/11/2001. Obviously, they had never heard of the Blitz! They had been through at least 10 or 11 years of school, too. Sad.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 20:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The official title is "alternative hoistory", Joel. If you search you'll find dozens of versions on the 'net. My own favourite is James Thurber's "If Grant had been drunk at Appotomax".

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 21:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

For those who time travel and the Blitz may sound like strange but satisfying bedfellows (at least in concept...) --- and are looking for word value for their time and financial investments, into the bargain --- there is (are) the 'Blackout' and 'All Clear' by Connie Willis -- two halves of one very (very) long novel --- which won the Hugo for best science fiction or fantasy novel.

That the award was controversially presented to two books, sold separately, was chalked up to the requirements of commercial publishing. The narrative has three Oxford historians from the 2060 sent to and trapped in, 1940 London, where discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war.

Yes, Ms. Willis does go on but to be fair (if I must...) there are plenty of 'nuggets' to be found; you just have to keep panning madly for the gold through a stream of great quantities of historical research, meandering conversations and long passages with the characters' innermost thoughts. I will say that when finishing the duology, I did feel a certain virtuousness. If that sounds altogether too daunting, you can pick up the backstory threads by just reading 'All Clear' (at some 600+ pages).

Jan (not verified) Thu, 19/05/2022 - 21:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I really got into alternative histories of the world about a decade back. There's alternate world world views for just about any event or circumstances you can think of..what if William the Conqueror had been defeated at Battle. (Not in but @ you will note.) What if the Vikings had won @ Stamford Bridge? What would have happened if the Roman Empire had not fallen into decay.. If the Egyptians had developed the generation of electricity.
Some of this stuff is written to read like scifi. Often it's quite dry like an every day thesis. But once you start thinking of differing outcomes and possibilities it's seductive, addictive almost like humming a hit pop song you can't get out of your head.

Some of the writers are no slouches either often experts in their field. Firmly in the Weird but interesting category.

Paul C (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 09:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Napoleon was very narrowly defeated at Waterloo and on another day may have won with major consequences for European history. If Henry VIII's first wife Catherine of Aragon had given birth to a male heir Britain would not have become Protestant with huge effects on British - and especially Irish - history. Counterfactual history is a fascinating field but a lecturer in history told me that most academics believe it a complete waste of time.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 12:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Paul C Paul, outside of academe, many would say a good deal of what academics write about is a 'complete waste of time' --- to say nothing of the funding behind it. And the carping, of course, is certainly not unknown within the hallowed halls of learning themselves.

David Ronaldson (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 15:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Michael Moorcock also wrote time travel novels. I love his "Dancers at the end of Time", trilogy, in which hedonistic humans in the far distant future carelessly capture time travellers and travel back in time themselves, so long as they don't change history, in which case they are "ejected" back to their own time.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 16:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Even the folklore academic world is troubled by dissension. Though the presence of lay enthusiasts can help conferences etc avoid too much bloodshed, and Zoom/online conferences even more so. You can't be much more than snarky and dismissive when your rival/enemy is out of back-stabbing distance.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 17:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jo, my comment about back seat squabbling was mere speculation since my mother just would not have tolerated that sort of behaviour. I don't know what she'd have done, but we wouldn't have put anything past her. The only incident I remember was during a trip to Saskatchewan when my brother and I became fixated on what we decided were "commie" books and Mother warned us most firmly that we were not to call them that in a store. It was the mid 1950s so I understand her caution.
Everything is good here although we're hearing horror stories about border crossing points where people are taking hours and hours to clear and are missing flights and sitting in traffic lines all over the place. The long weekend has hardly even started yet and I'm glad we're not planning on going anywhere"away".

Joel (not verified) Fri, 20/05/2022 - 19:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@robert...thank you for the recommendation and the correct description

Frances (not verified) Sat, 21/05/2022 - 16:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The one and only time my parents went to a shelter during the war, their flat was burgled. From then on they put my brother to sleep in a drawer on the floor beside their bed. When there were sirens they would shove the drawer under their bed and go back to sleep.

A relative in Ireland sent them a whole ham for Christmas. It arrived in the Spring and could practically walk on its own by that time. Afraid to throw it out and be accused of wasting food, they went out at night with a torch and spade and buried it in Chiswick Park.

Those are the only two things they ever told me about the war. They never spoke of it otherwise. My in-laws were both in the forces and never stopped talking about it, even decades later.

Richard (not verified) Sun, 22/05/2022 - 03:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Frances. I've read a few good novels this past week, but your paragraph on burying a ham in Chiswick Park is better than all of them.

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 22/05/2022 - 11:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My read this week has been "Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler family". A real shocker. How could one family be responsible for the opioid epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands in the 90s? It is a heavy 500 pager plus. My biceps and triceps have bulked up and I see my wife looking at me a little differently over the last few days.

I now have ‘The Battle Of London: 1939-45’ on my list. Is it a thick/heavy book?

I like being part of the Minority Reading Demographic "men only account for a fifth of literary fiction readers". I cannot say I have ever consciously been part of a minority before. I think we should demand inclusivity. In sports, movies, reality tv shows and more. Viva MRD.

I would like to thank those that contributed posts recently regarding people living with Colostomy bags. This is a subject that I would usually turn away from with a grimace, but I gained a new perspective and sensitivity reading those posts.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 22/05/2022 - 16:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

But will you need painkillers for your biceps and triceps to recover, Alan R?

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 22/05/2022 - 18:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Roger, You may be right. Do you have the Sackler's number? But then again at my age, with that look in my wife's eye, maybe I should rather be looking for little blue pills.

Anne (not verified) Tue, 24/05/2022 - 10:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We used to sing The Quartermasters Store when I was in the Girl Guides in the early '80's!