Some Hardbacks For Christmas Part 1
This was the year in which hardbacks really came into their own. Suddenly £18 seemed a reasonable spend on a brand new novel when going out to dinner (remember that?) set us all back an awful lot more. But in these wretched times of political ineptitude, disease, loss and economic betrayals our tastes grow tame.
A glance through the window of any large bookstore window reveals the extent of the new bestseller blandness. You know you’re in trouble when Agatha Christie knockoffs head the lists while relatable stories set in the present day are virtually nonexistent.
So if we’re talking about comfort reading with a little added extra, here are a few titles for you this Christmas.
The Madman’s Library
This has the best opening line I’ve read this year:
‘I had just turned one when my father first used me as a bidder’s paddle at an auction.’
That’s from ‘The Madman’s Library‘, Edward Brooke-Hitching’s guide to the weirdest books in the world, including books that poison you, curse you, repulse you or leave you feeling disoriented and vaguely unsettled, experimental in form, subversive in content. From a time before cuneiform to books which aren’t even books, via quite a few deeply disturbing depictions of the undepictable, courtesy of organised religion, this is a riveting dive into the perverse creations of those who need to communicate.
And people do need to find ways of expressing the impossible or unquantifiable, just as scientists spend lifetimes attempting to weigh the universe. So here we have devils and angels, circles of hell, spiritual balm, dire prophecies, catalogues of fauna made from the fauna itself (smells of moss, apparently) and yes, books bound in human skin. And in case you think Mr Brooke-Hitching hasn’t covered everything, there’s a Victorian book that converts into a toilet, the first real toilet book I suppose. It’s sumptuously illustrated with extraordinary images but for once the text is just as wonderful.
‘Howdunit‘ by the writer and editor Martin Edwards gathers together ninety essays by crime authors past and present, taking readers and writers through every stage of the crime genre, and as such is probably the most entertaining volume of sage advice yet assembled on the subject. Edwards deserves kudos for single-handedly rescuing so many wonderful Golden Age crime novels, even though some of them reveal the gigantic gulf that now exists between those hyper-judgemental times and ours.
This is not a how-to manual but a compendium of wise suggestions from experts. All essayists are members of the venerable Detection Club, some members of which have only written a couple of crime novels. I have written well over two dozen award-winning crime novels. I never been invited to join the venerable Detection Club. Doubtless I never will, and it’s too late now anyway. One of the club’s members is the former editor who turned down my Bryant & May novels. I enjoyed the book immensely.
I don’t want to tell you too much about ‘Shadowplay‘ by the excellent Irish writer Joseph O’Connor. He’s had some ups and downs since the wonderful ‘Star of the Sea’ but this is his return to peak form, and the premise alone excites. Bram Stoker is now the manager of the Lyceum Theatre, ‘Dracula’ has been published, but his plans set awry by the greatest performer of his day…
This is perfect stamping ground for O’Connor, and plays out like a cross between Beryl Bainbridge and Peter Ackroyd. There’s something about the slightly moth-eaten, disreputable elements of theatre that brings out the best in certain writers, and O’Connor is on absolute peak form here.
The Shortest History of England
As noted in the last article I posted, the class divide in the UK remains more firmly in place than ever. The South traditionally had more money, but did it have something more? Did the country really split into two entirely separate halves at the Watford Gap?
A new book by James Hawes, ‘The Shortest History of England‘ (his follow-up to a similarly revealing German history) provides a soberingly unsentimental answer and a fresh way of understanding this island race. Hawes astonishes because he has successfully boiled down the complex, sprawling history of the (dis)United Kingdom to the division of power, religion and inevitably, class. Where once you faced immolation for being Catholic or Protestant (and some were burned together on the same pyre) you now face the more insidious death of abandonment by the upper classes, who maintain the same death-grip on their entitlement as they ever did.
Grubbing opportunists like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexit-billionaire Jim Ratcliffe (who just switched his manufacturing to France at the eleventh hour of Brexit talks) routinely betray those around them to feather their nests in the exact same way that the robber-barons of the Enclosure Acts which stole 6.8 million acres of common land from the people.
Some will find Mr Hawes’s book polemical, but I would argue that it’s the fair assessment we’ve been waiting for. Of course not everyone wants to face the stark facts; that waging war in Europe was expensive but naval war around the globe filled our treasure chests, that by uniting the elite and the peasantry we started the trickle-down economics that led to a multinational society powered by a greedy amalgam of the elite and wealthy.
I would argue that the nation is not quite as multi-lingual (English still being the lingua Franca) nor as socially mobile as one would think (you only get so far before the doors gently and quietly close on you), but this is a reminder that we are still a nation of two halves, the Frenchified Norman Southern elite and the blunt Anglo Saxon/Celtic North. Mr Hawes’ book is a short, sharp corrective to nationalist nostalgia, with more to unpack in its brief page run than histories three or four times its length. It will change the way you look at England forever. How many books about our history have ever done that?
Let’s Do It
The authorised biography of a national treasure, this is a gold-plated Christmas hit for those of us who ‘got’ comedian/composer Victoria Wood. She has been unfairly treated over the years, written off as telly fodder. I first encountered her at the Institute of Contemporary Arts when she appeared with Julie Walters in the bleakly hilarious play ‘Talent’, and followed her stage appearances for a number of years. We wrote to each other several times, and I became good friends with her producer. But there was a wary side to Vic, a deep embarrassment about accepting praise. Class reared its ugly head here, in that Alan Bennett, a not dissimilar Northern stylist, had been fêted from his university years onwards, and Wood less so with the academic critics, even though she always struck me as being the distaff Bennett, better equipped to connect in some ways than he ever was,
Wood’s love of linguistic peculiarity shone through everything, and she always wrote marvellous parts for women. Perhaps she became too seduced by TV, which diminished her talents and boxed her into a misguided ‘cosy mum’ image. The one real flaw I found in her work is that although she was a brilliant stand-up, when playing a fictional character she could never resist glancing at the camera. She was not a particularly interesting actress and there was always something amateurish about her performances. With guidance she would have written more for the theatre and worried less about TV ratings.
Jasper Rees manages a solid assessment of her work here, but for other writers the real joy in her writing lies in her ability to define a Northern idiom and find strange joys in the mundane. Instead of asking, ‘May I sit here?’ one character says, ‘Can I park? Are you bothered?’ Another ventures, ‘We stayed up for the News At Ten. Three bangles and a polo neck, thank you.’ Her musicality informed her writing so that cadence and metre remained central to dialogue.When you remove the memory of her regular (marvellous) repertory cast and let the writing stand alone it remains darkly brilliant, in keeping with other great Northern writers like Keith Waterhouse or David Nobbs. She died too young and is greatly missed.