What I’m Currently Reading
This month’s reads have to be fitted around research books, and I certainly won’t finish them quickly, especially not William Dalrymple’s epic examination of the East India Company in The Anarchy. I’ve read a lot about the plundering corporation who carried out the ultimate form of aggressive privatisation (and relished Jonathan Pryce’s foul-mouthed managing director in ‘Taboo’) but this is a richly detailed, enthralling account that might make me forgive him for the dreadful ‘Koh-i-Noor’.
Dr Matthew Green’s London: A Travel Guide Through Time is a terrific wheeze – rearranging London’s history via a series of time-hopping visits that chuck you directly into the smelly, noisy, filthy action. If the choices are a tad obvious – plague, fire, the Globe theatre etc – it’s still a lot fun (especially for younger readers) and Dr Green clearly enjoys describing the sights, sounds and smells of the old city and its residents.
Plenty Under The Counter is a wartime whodunnit rescued from obscurity – with good reason. No pastiche this, it’s the real thing, written in 1943 by Kathleen Hewitt, and the language is redolent of smoky pubs, dodgy shops and burned out buildings. It’s also a lot more chipper than you’d expect as the civilians unravel a murder plot, light another gasper and get on with daily life in the midst of the Blitz.
The Five is the last book I’ll ever read on the Whitechapel Murders (and I’ve read a lot, trust me) because Hallie Rubenhold writes something that should have been written years ago – an examination of the canonical five victims of Saucy Jack, their terrible lives, their victimisation and their erasure from history to appear only in monochrome photographs as rendered corpses. I’ve even had Arthur Bryant explain to a child why the Ripper has an almost mystical appeal to obsessives when it should be the preyed-upon women who should be studied. This is a staggering work of research, and in the absence of an identity for the killer, feels like true closure. Bravo, Ms Rubenhold.
Rarely has a book been more ideally titled than Kevin Wilson’s Nothing To See Here. He’s a fun, accessible stylist but this story’s appeal bypassed me. Lillian is a lazy, tiresome young woman charged with looking after twins for her best friend Madison, the putative future First Lady(!), the snag being that the children tend to burst into flames when they get upset. Aiming for a Vonnegut-lite magical realist vibe, it seems to have pleased US critics but opts for some heavily telegraphed family bonding and navel-gazing instead of tackling big themes. Why does nobody Google ‘spontaneous combustion’? Why is no-one remotely interested in how this works? I get that the phrase ‘catch on fire’ is an Americanism but when it’s on every single page you tend to stumble over it. A bucket of cold water would have taken care of the plot.
Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis, looks at censorship outrages and reminds us of the absurdity wrought on them by time. It’s all about timing, being ahead of the curve of acceptance. When everyone obeyed the church even different versions of the Bible were dangerous. Zola, all grubby proletarian sex and violence, was quite beyond the pale, but poshos Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall did not escape uncut. Here are the stories behind Lolita, Fanny Hill, banned horror comics and a technical manual for hit men. The biggest fear is that books will corrupt and deprave the vulnerable, and perhaps in the case of say, ‘The Anarchist’s Cookbook’ they’re right. Does the printed word corrupt? Is a vulnerable reader likely to see a blueprint for evil in what he reads, or is he just as likely to be influenced by looking at the stars? In 1955’s ‘Weird Fantasy No.18 the comic book story ‘Judgement Day’ was openly anti-racist, and the put-upon hero is revealed to be black. ‘You can’t have a Negro,’ warned the magistrate. ‘Fuck you,’ said the publisher, Bill Gaines, and went ahead. It was his last comic.