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 My muscle mass has been replaced by fatty sludge, the result of being told to alter my diet from Mediterranean (fish, salads) to – as my doctor gracefully put it – ‘shopping in those aisles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.