Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The White Heron Beneath the Reactor

Gary Budden, co-founder of Influx Press and author of Hollow Shores (published by Dead Ink), is also an an avid bird watcher. He admits that his love of birds may at times appear incompatible with his other interests.

“heavy and brutal music, clanking beeps and drones, obscure ghost stories, crumbling Saxon ruins, SHARP culture, experimental folk.”

In The White Heron Beneath the Reactor he writes of a visit to RSPB Dungeness to observe a white heron. It is off-peak season, mid-week and the weather is dismal. This pleases Budden as it keeps away tourists, but not him. The few hardy folk he observes are distant. He is free to examine his surroundings uninterrupted.

“Far away, a yellow digger deposits or removes shingle, I can’t tell, surrounded by a whirring halo of screeching gulls. Landscape maintenance; nothing is natural.”

Dungeness is described as scoured by salt winds – a flat, bleak coastline in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Nevertheless, it is here that the great white egret has begun to migrate from across the channel where its population is expanding. Budden suppresses the urge to come up with some sort of contemporary allegory.

“My white heron is not an immigrant, nor an expat, nor a citizen of the world. I will not let it support a political agenda, not even the one I wish to push. […] its world doesn’t have borders.”

The author considers and details the place as he finds it in evocative but never bucolic prose. He has an eye for the surreal – the impact of man’s behaviour.

He takes photographs knowing that the writing he will produce is to be illustrated by the landscape artist, Maxim Griffin. These colourful interpretations, included liberally alongside the text, are wonderful.

In some ways this is a paean to the tenacity of the natural world. Elegiac descriptions are tempered by dry humour. There is much irony but also an undercurrent of hope. Budden’s quick wit and percipient scrutiny are expressed in pared back yet resonant form. The sighting of the heron, in this place, unlocks something for the author.

The writing is reflective and absorbing. The book is a work of art. I recommend you read it. It is a tale for our times.

The White Heron Beneath the Reactor was published using funding raised via Kickstarter.

Book Review: Poems of the Mare Nostrum / Costa Nostra

Having recently read a number of crowd pleasing novels it felt good to sink my teeth into this challenging poetry collection. Subtitled, ‘Poems for the twilight of the shipwrecked’, the author opens by explaining the main title.

Places go by many names over time. What we now call the Mediterranean, the Romans referred to as Mare Nostrum, meaning Our Sea. Today, Costa Nostra refers to

“beaches, and the Pan-European defence of coastlines and borders: a machinery which only intensified in recent years.”

Desimone looks to ancient Greece for heroes and beasts

“all of whom seem to have enjoyed significantly more freedom to wander, especially in the light of today’s more clearly defined barriers”

This theme of borders and beasts, ancient and modern, along with the plight of immigrants and refugees and how this compares to the treatment of tourists, permeates a collection alive with anger and contempt for those who dehumanise others in order to protect their privileged existence, despite having more than enough available to share.

Set largely in and around the Mediterranean there are musings on who is allowed in and who must sneak across borders and the sea. The history of the area is referenced along with the many sites over which wars have been waged. There is mention of religious zealots who indulge in alcohol and harlots, against the texts they demand others adhere to. Tourists are mentioned – plugged into headphones rather than listening and engaging, who capture photographs rather than absorbing and dissolving their being into that moment’s experience.

When looking at art – illustrations by the author are included – there is consternation amongst the Muslim brotherhood over depictions of female nudes. Imposition does not just come from the capitalist west.

The poems explore freedom and what this means. They look at walls, borders and prescribed behaviour, at (in)tolerance of non conformity.

“there is nothing remote about control”

Man, with his war machines and war mentality, his striving for capitalist or religious ideals that he then wishes to protect against rebels and invaders, is compared to earlier societies in the area. The author asks if education is the eradication of tradition, and what is lost following polish and cleansing – of the masks donned in so called modernisation.

“erecting new office buildings,
jagged edifices of stress, vomitous,
against the sea”

“They expect to live forever;
they want to sleep with the famous
and to vote for absolute evil,
in the elections
of the continent of good ideas”

Several poems refer to the death of a gypsy woman on a French street, and the attitudes of those going to work in their smart suits who ponder when the body will be tidied away.

I particularly enjoyed Welfare Rat which explores the resentment felt by the well fed when asked to provide a means for the hungry to acquire food. This is followed by Poem Against Switzerland which rails against the country’s expense and values.

“Fear Swiss static: its glaciers birthed
streams of expensive water,
and echoed the birth
of the anti-dream

To the Swiss lands
of Evian for downing Prozac,
I by far prefer Greece:
Onira Gleekee they say before
sending you to bed, “Sugar on your dreams””

The striving for eradication of dirt and smell, for the spread of order and convention and distaste for anything else, is a repeated theme. Also tourists taking, then talking as if knowledgeable of a culture they briefly experience but have not inherited and had ingrained.

Later poems look at fear and how it is generated. How, over time, it has become hidden – a school of sharks transformed into submarines and torpedoes.

“The game of mongering dread, aversion:
today our masters call it “deterrence””

In amongst the anger were mentions I baulked at – the prostitutes, a reference to ‘bestseller housewife novels’, the ‘sexiness of fake blond’ – I disagreed.

I cannot say I got all the references, and nor could I make sense of many of the author’s line drawings. And yet, I understood the passion and resentment that a way of living was being imposed – striving for acquisition a driving force over acceptance.

The poems are best read as though being listened to – as urgent, spoken word poetry. The powerful collection gives more on each rereading.

“In the end,
Sun and Moon can destroy
and recreate like no human can.”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Prote(s)xt.

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas

boychristmas

A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, is the spirit of the season wrapped up inside the covers of a book. It is funny, poignant, mischievous, magical and joyous to read. It provides all the warm fuzzies without ever descending into schmaltz.

The protagonist, Nikolas, is a woodcutter’s son living in Finland more than a hundred years ago. He and his father, Joel, are very poor, subsisting on berries, stale bread and soup made from foraged mushrooms. When a hunter appears unexpectedly at their remote home offering untold riches if Joel will join him on an expedition to the dangerous north, Nikolas is left in the care of his cruel aunt. Even hungrier now, desperate and unhappy, Nikolas counts the days to his father’s return. When he does not reappear the boy determines to follow in the woodcutter’s footsteps and search him out.

The dangers Nikolas encounters and the friends he makes on his adventures offer explanations for many of the traditions now associated with the festive season. We learn how reindeer fly, why presents are placed in stockings, how crackers save lives, and the origins of the naughty and nice lists.

The author slips in many points to consider about humanity, greed, and how grown ups seek to justify their selfishness. He also reminds us of the joy of giving, the value of a clear conscience, and the power of hope.

If I had read this book years ago then I would not have told my growing children that Father Christmas was not real. Why limit life by accepting what others regard as impossible?

“An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet…”

This is a book that deserves to appear in every stocking on Christmas Eve. I have no doubt it is destined to become a perennial festive favourite with child and adult alike.