Book Review: The Other Jack

the other jack

“‘The characters in this book are fictional and bear no relation to actual persons, living or dead.’ These disclaimers are there, I assume, in case of libel actions, but I’ve always believed they are part of the fiction.”

I have met Charles Boyle on a handful of occasions at book events. The first time was a gathering linked to a literary prize I was helping judge and for which one of his novels had been submitted, albeit under a pseudonym. The prize was to reward the publisher as well as the author. In this case, Boyle was both.

“In 2007 I published four books under an imprint I made up on a whim and two of them were by me. I planned to take copies of the books into local bookshops and humbly suggest they might like to stock them … In a bookseller’s book, self-published authors are shady characters. They can come across as a little desperate – with reason, but it’s not a good look. So, Jack Robinson.”

My impression of this creator of CB editions – which publishes, among other fine authors, himself and Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist, Broken Consort, Murmur) – was gleaned not so much from our brief conversations but from the esteem in which he is obviously held by those who know him better. I detected no artifice in his public persona but rather a desire to remain in the background. He appeared more embarrassed than anything when presented with a special recognition award.

As part of my coverage of the prize I invited Boyle to write this guest post in which he indicated his intent to wind down his publishing activity. As a reader, I am pleased it does not yet appear to have happened, not least because this latest book by him is an absolute gem.

The Other Jack offers a window into the author’s thoughts on a wide variety of literature, including literary history, habits and tropes. It is framed around conversations with a young woman, Robyn, who the narrator meets in coffee shops. The reader may assume it is autobiographical, although if Robyn exists she too has a pseudonym.

“Exposing the artificiality of conventions involves even more artifice than was originally required”

The book is about: books, publishing, readers, writers, class, prejudice, rivalries, and what the author describes as poshlust. There are regular mentions of Stendhal, an ‘obsession’ that the narrator admits to and, in certain ways, appears to learn from personally. Impressions gleaned of Boyle are of a fierce intellect but self-deprecating demeanour. His writing oozes wit and intelligence while never appearing clever for the sake of it.

We learn that the author grew up in Yorkshire, boarded at an all boys school – although the only further abuse mentioned of his time there was being beaten for tardiness – and then went up to Cambridge.

“I read Dostoevsky and a whole shelf of fat black Penguin Classics in translation when I was at Cambridge, a period in my life I have few fond memories of. Very long books are often read by people at times when they were unhappy and perhaps lonely.”

Now living in London, this straight, white man is searingly aware of the tribe he fits into – supposedly well-educated Guardian readers who like to grumble when their views are not more widely agreed with. And yet, this book proves that Boyle thinks more deeply and possesses an understanding of alternative views, something that can appear absent among his cohorts. Although about him, this book is as much a take-down of his ilk as about the literati he could claim a valid place with. He offers nuggets of rebellion against what may be expected by ‘serious’ readers.

“In bookshops I often read last pages. I take browsing seriously. In life you can’t know how it’s going to end but in books you can, and I’ve never seen any reason not to … skipping to the end before the author is expecting me there – getting the ending out of the way – protects me against anticlimax. Endings so often disappoint.”

The book is structured in bite sized musings that circle and segue effortlessly. There are reflections on: dead authors, death, pretentious posturing, sticking pins in those who readers are suddenly encouraged to condemn.

On getting published, Boyle writes:

“Is serial rejection a calculated initiation rite? A way of culling down to the ones who just won’t go away?”

On banning books, he points out the double standards and conceits.

“The trial of Madame Bovary for obscenity in 1857 was an attempt not to ban its publication – photo studios and shops selling pornography were flourishing in Paris at the time – but to prevent women from reading.”

A century later, in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for obscenity, the jury were told:

“You, sir, may be trusted with this book, but heaven forfend that it should be read by women and the working classes.”

I have quoted widely here yet have barely skimmed the surface of the many subjects brought under the author’s piercing lens – and wryly shared. Robyn requests that he mention umbrellas less frequently yet each inclusion added merit to the discourse, as was the case for each topic breached.

A book about books by a writer who writes with elan and repartee. A joy of a read for readers who enjoy not just stories but what is behind them.

The Other Jack is published by CB editions.


Book Review: Good Day?

Good Day? by Vesna Main is written mostly as dialogue. The conversations transcribed are between a long married, middle aged couple. She is an author and ardent feminist. He is an academic, researching women in the Labour Party. He is also his wife’s first reader. Each day they discuss developments in her work in progress. The novel being written is about a long married, middle aged couple, Richard and Anna, whose marriage has hit difficulties following Richard’s revelation that he has been sleeping with prostitutes.

The husband is unhappy that his wife appears to be basing her characters on them. He is concerned that she is revealing too much that is true and that their friends and colleagues who read her work will assume it is autobiographical. Also, that acquaintances will find themselves within the story and feel insulted. The wife denies the extent of these allegations but still takes personally her husband’s critiques of Anna’s controlling and self-centred personality. She insists that Anna is lovely and that it is Richard who should be condemned. Her husband’s sympathy for the man, his assertion that Anna shoulder some responsibility for Richard’s actions, creates tension.

The dialogue tells the story of the work in progress and also of the real life couple. Art mirrors life but does life mirror art? There is a lingering question over how much impact stories have on a reader’s subsequent actions.

It is interesting to view how a writer constructs a novel – the conceits and concerns. Ideas are lifted from other tales already written.

The unusual structure is used to impressive effect. The sensitivities of the writer and her irritation at the male perspective are recounted with candour and wit. By telling a story within a story there are blurred lines between fact and fiction. The loneliness and frustration inherent when couples cannot convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that garners affinity is skillfully portrayed.

Within the tale are many interesting diversions. The author explores themes such as: addiction, obsessive behaviour, rewriting memory when exposed to new information. There are threads on class and the affectations of the intelligentsia. There are challenges to thinking that places itself as the moral high ground.

As someone who dislikes reading detailed descriptions of sex I baulked at one particularly blatant scene, yet even this fitted for the reasons given. The author is exploring derivative work and plagiarism. The overlaps between the two couples are somehow both obvious and opaque.

The writing is tense and compelling. Although nuanced and layered the story has the feel of a thriller. It is admirable that so much has been fitted into such a concise volume. This is a clever and thought-provoking read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes, by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre), documents the author’s research into and thoughts on how allegedly missing manuscripts from renowned writers came to disappear. Some are assumed lost due to accidental fire or theft, others destroyed by their creator or at the wish of surviving family. Reasons are myriad and it is the musings on these that form the basis of this work.

How important, really, is any piece of writing? The author states this view:

“The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature”

Poignantly, the daughter of one of the writers featured, Sylvia Plath, wrote in a 1997 poem of the appropriation of her mother’s memory by literary commentators who speak as if they had known Plath despite never having met her. Such is the interest and affinity generated by certain literary works.

There are thoughts on ownership and control of written words, of censorship due to the culture of the time along with protection of life and legacy. A memoir written by Byron is suspected destroyed due to its reveal of his homosexuality at a time when this was regarded as more shameful than incest. It would not only have been his reputation that was affected but also those of the men he had had affairs with.

Scholars grow excited at the idea of the rediscovery of writing assumed lost forever. When pages do emerge there are concerns over authenticity.

The book sets down known facts alongside rumour and conjecture. One writer featured, Malcolm Lowry, is reported as having destroyed the manuscript of his second book when he could not achieve the desired perfection. He wished to write an incomparable masterpiece. Such was his conceit that he preferred not to publish rather than submit a lesser work. Of his first book it is stated:

“It was praised superlatively and attacked; vilified by reactionary critics and admired in the most progressive literary circles.”

How familiar this sounds. There are certain books one is supposed to revere to be considered discerning. Opinion may be subjective but will be judged by the self professed experts and their acolytes.

As a lover of literature but one without qualification I found this book fascinating yet its supposition a little frustrating. There are so many fabulous books in existence, is the loss of a few such a calamity? From an academic perspective there may be unanswered questions. Completists may mourn a possible gap in their collection. A reader can always find some other book to read.

An interesting exploration of the reasons manuscripts disappear alongside aspects of writers’ lives and their proclivities. It is succinct and engaging. The importance of the missing works is perhaps a different conversation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books – or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.  

A Bookish Tour of London

I wrote the following article for Structo Magazine as a contribution to their ‘tour’ series. After some consideration the editors decided it did not fit with their ethos: “Structo is dedicated to small independent presses, works in translation and writing that may not always be covered elsewhere.” I  support this ethos and hope to write for Structo in the future. In the meantime, I post my article here.   


Excitement in my rural Wiltshire village is rare. A mobile library visits once a month. To buy a book I must travel five miles to the nearest small town. This town also boasts a mainline railway station. It is my gateway to city life, to London and beyond.

My knowledge of London has been gleaned from books. Their stories paint pictures of places I dream of visiting, and it is to these that I am drawn when I plan a tour. My interest lies in the lives of the ordinary. History may be told by the victors, but it is made by the masses. If I visit a landmark it is to consider not the benefactor but those who built his pedestal.

Let us travel then to London as I view it through literature. I will avoid the tourist trails and the better known books. Others may seek out Shakespeare and Dickens, or the power hungry world of Wolf Hall. Included here are a mixture of more ordinary works, so if you harbour prejudices, set them aside.


Like Paddington Bear, I arrive in the capital via his eponymous station, empathising with his feelings of excitement and anticipation at the adventures ahead. Stepping down from the train into the melee of commuters, tourists and students, I am carried by the crowd to the ticket barriers. From here I descend into the bowels of the city. The warm air of the underground rushes up to meet me. Where to first?

Travelling the underground is an adventure in itself. I glimpse abandoned stations through flickering lights and wonder at their demise. I could read of this in Ben Pedroche’s Do Not Alight, one of the few non-fiction books to grace my shelves. I prefer instead to imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his monsters and saints, murderers and angels. I think of the tunnels explored in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I can almost hear her music in the whoosh and scream of train on track.


I travel first to Highgate Cemetery. Since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Perfect Symmetry, I have been eager to take the tour detailed in her book. On east side and west I seek the graves of writers – Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx are all here. The sense of history and the spirit of the place bring peace from the bustling, traffic-filled surrounds.

A short walk through Highgate and I may explore Hampstead Heath, scene of so many fictional murders. My most recent happened in Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, a chilling tale that causes me to glance anew at the Lycra-clad runners passing by. I visit Ladies Pond, climb Parliament Hill and admire the city stretched out below. I avoid the dark and quiet woods. The bushes may keep the cruiser’s secrets.


When I think of London I see the Thames. Travelling to the Embankment, I marvel at the feats of civil engineering which have reclaimed this marshy land, enclosing the busy waterway. I walk alongside the river and time travel to the eighteenth century. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River evoked a London life hard to imagine today: raw sewage-strewn alleyways; overcrowded and freezing lodgings; watermen working the muddy riverbanks ferrying the wealthy for a few small coins, becoming sodden so that delicate slippers may be kept clean.

M.D. Murphy’s Dark River Melody encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the Georgian period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time. It is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets.

I look across the water to Battersea Power Station and consider the continuing inequalities of today. Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear tells of run down estates just beyond the luxury flats that now grace this iconic landmark. I pass the beggars, the troubled who sit ignored. Since reading Richard Butchin’s Pavement, I wonder at their thought processes, how they channel anger at so much conspicuous wealth when they struggle to find food enough to live. We must hope that they will not choose to become serial killers as Butchen’s protagonist did.  


Travelling east I visit Greenwich Park and the locations so vividly portrayed in Alan WiIliam’s Blackheath Séance Parlour. I see no great winged creatures lurking overhead but may still view the Ranger’s House, the Royal Observatory, St Alfege’s Church, and enjoy a drink at a recently refurbished Hare and Billet. I find that a Dartmouth Terrace still exists but it is not where the sisters would have lived. The original terrace was demolished last century following war damage.  

All cities exist in a state of flux. There are still many blocks of ordinary looking houses to admire, although priced now beyond the reach of the families for whom they were built. I think of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, how the blitz of the Second World War destroyed so many homes and lives. I note the modern proliferation of luxury apartment blocks and ponder what it would take to drive these into the chaos depicted in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.


I end my journey on Charing Cross Road. There are still many bookshops to enjoy but it is the site of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road to which I am drawn. It saddens me that this no longer exists. I take comfort in a visit to Foyles.

And then west to catch the train home. As I pull away from the station I pass back gardens and become Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. All journeys offer potential for a story, and all stories for a journey.


Book Review: Literary London

literary london

Literary London, by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, is a book that should be read by all lovers of literature who wish to explore our vibrant and ever changing capital city. It is an entertaining guide to London’s literary history from the fourteenth century to the present day. It includes anecdotes on the literati who have congregated in the many pubs and clubs, made their homes in the garrets and mansions, and got together to forge friendships and rivalries. As well as offering up snippets on the writers’ lives, there are maps showing where they lived and worked that readers may walk in their footsteps, or refresh themselves in the watering holes frequented along the way.

In the late twelfth century Richard of Devizes, a monk passing through the city, wrote:

“You will come to London […] I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone.”

Not to be put off by such a warning, many came. Indeed, even in the fourteenth century Londoners considered themselves a cut above the rest of the country. An eyewitness account of the Peasents’ Revolt described the rebels who invaded as:

“nasty, dirty countrymen, and certainly not from London.”

The authors have divided their commentary into twenty-one sections that readers may easily dip in and out should they wish to explore particular themes. For example, ‘Crime’ looks at many of the detective novels based in the city, and tells of The London Detection Club, a society for writers that still exists today. The code of ethics members must pledge to abide by is included, aimed at sustaining the quality of each author’s work and ensuring their readers be given “a fair chance at guessing the guilty party”.

Although this book focuses on well known and regarded writers, there is acknowledgement of subjectivity in judging literary merit. In the section ‘Modernists and Vorticists’, a series of abstract poems by Edith Sitwell could be described as “an experimental masterpiece or mere doggerel.” There are accounts of sackings by magazine publishers for “liberality towards experimentalists”. The TLS describes a poem by Prufrock as having “no relation to poetry.”

Sitwell and her contemporaries liked to dress up and wear strange face paints. Writers throughout the ages appear to have been fuelled by debauchery and a predilection for the bizarre. This notority was regarded as even less acceptable for women, many of whom changed their names to achieve publication. The fight continues against “the ingrained idea that women should in their spare time knit, sew and leave the thinking to the men”.

Each section finishes with details of key addresses (including closest tube station) and a list of recommended reading. Of course, many of the places mentioned no longer exist. Pubs in which writers congregated have been replaced by chain restaurants, entire streets have been erased for modern development. Where possible, however, the reader may seek out literary landmarks where the stories told here were lived.

There is a guide to a Dickensian pub crawl, a helpful map comparing Shakespeare’s Bankside to Bankside as it is today, a list of addresses where the Bloomsberries held their famous salons, restaurants where readers may “Eat like a Spy”. Talking of spies, there is also a little anecdote within these pages explaining how James Bond got his code number. It is the plethora of snippets such as this which make the book such a joy to read.

From Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit through to Chaucer’s pilgrims, the lives of London writers and their creations are chronicled for the reader’s delectation. It does not profess to be a comprehensive compendium but the nuggets shared are enlightening. The writing is consistently and assuredly entertaining.

Read from cover to cover then dip into at will. Having discovered the places that nurtured and inspired these London writers, you may well be inspired to make a few outings of your own.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the authors.

Random Musings: The books that defined my teenage years


It is February which means that #Bookadayuk is back on Twitter after a month long hiatus. Today’s prompt was to name ‘the book that defined my teenage years’. I chose Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ but it took me some time to select this title from the many considered. People change constantly throughout their lives as they are influenced by new experiences but the personal development between twelve and twenty can be particularly radical. As now, books were my companions and my teachers. I was beginning to question everything about my accepted way of living and my choice of reading material reflected the variety of directions explored.

I entered my teenage years an ardent fan of JRR Tolkien. My brother had bought me a copy of ‘The Hobbit’ and my father was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which I picked up when he had finished. I don’t recall ever discussing the book with him but I went on to purchase and read every Tolkien book published. I loved the fact that such a complex world had been created and that I could feel such strong empathy towards those who were different to me.

In school I was required to read the classics which I found dull. I was well into my twenties before I gained any enjoyment from the likes of Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell or the Bronte sisters. The books I read for pleasure at that time included the Poldark series by Winston Graham, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the early works of Jeffery Archer and a large selection of forgettable romances. I bought these latter works at charity shops and left them wherever I happened to be for others to find when I had finished. My sister mocked me, instilling an embarrassment that I should choose to read such books.

I also worked my way through my brother’s and father’s collections of Penguin modern classics. It was amongst these orange and then grey covered gems that I discovered ‘Brave New World’. Once again the author had created a complex world but this one was recognisable. The music that I was listening to was giving me permission to break away from the person that my family wished me to be. ‘Brave New World’ gave me permission to consider the behaviour of the adults around me as flawed.

I remember the disappointment I felt when I realised that my parents were not as awesome as I had previously thought. As a parent of teenagers I have watched as my own children go through this process. Experienced from the other side it is just as difficult to passively accept.

The books I was reading as a teenager opened up so many new possibilities but I had yet to discover the direction that would work for me. I was, of course, strongly influenced by the friends I was hanging out with. I was looking for acceptance, admiration and love. I was mimicking the behaviours of those who seemed to have what I wanted rather than forging my own path.

The bookish discussions that I was having tended towards the pretentious. I would never admit to reading romances yet happily discussed certain literary works despite having not enjoyed them so much. I wonder now how many of us were presenting such affectations.

I came across ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ by Richard Bach at exactly the right time. Although I had not yet worked out what I was comfortable being, this book made it feel good to aspire to more than those around expected of me. I put aside the romances and began my voyage to discover contemporary fiction that challenged the status quo.

I had reached my twenties before I read Iain Banks’ ‘Wasp Factory’, Josephine Hart’s ‘Damage’ and my first Margaret Atwoods but these works represent to me the blossoming of the seeds I sowed when I escaped the shackles I had worn as a teenager trying to be something I was not.

I still choose to be more maverick than romantic, and continue to seek out books that will challenge how I live now.



Mr Gove needs to read more books

It started with Ladybird books, which looked so pleasing to the eye lined up neatly on the bookshelf above my small toybox. I knew each of their stories by heart. My avid reading, however, was inspired by Enid Blyton. My father, the educated reader I looked up to and wished to emulate in so many areas of life, did not seem to approve of Enid Blyton. He did approve of me reading; I was never denied my choice of books.

I expanded my interest to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan Coolidge, Ruby Ferguson, Helen Dore Boylston. I lapped up CS Forester, Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. I discovered the small library near to my primary school and devoured anything and everything that I could find in their childrens section. I immersed myself in new worlds and dreamed of being anyone other than who I was.

When I moved on to Grammar School I needed my books more than ever. I discovered Tolkien, but also a slew of writers of popular fiction; best selling thrillers that were easy to read and romances that fed my burgeoning, dreamy desires. Once again my family showed some disapproval of my choice of reading material, but did not interfere. I frequented the book sections of charity shops and read voraciously.

By the time ‘O’ levels were on the horizon I was a true lover of books. I had opinions that I had no difficulty expressing in essays, a growing vocabulary. I enjoyed English literature, but not the school lessons or the set texts that we were required to dissect and analyse. I preferred Wilfred Owen to Wordsworth; struggled to memorise ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by dull, old Shakespeare; found Dickens ridiculous with his over the top characters; disliked the foolish women of Cranford who never seemed to do anything. When my sister, who was studying for English ‘A’ level, showed me Chaucer I determined to give up the subject when I could.

I did not give up on books though. Alongside my favoured modern writers I read Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I discovered George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf. I tried Dickens again but still disliked him. I tried Shakespeare and came to realise that I enjoyed watching his plays but not reading the texts. I have read some of the ancients, Virgil and Plato, but have not yet attempted Chaucer.

I read widely, books by both living and dead authors from countries near and far. I read popular fiction alongside the more obscure titles that I make efforts to seek out. I still know little that can beat a quiet afternoon spent immersing myself in a well written, fictional world.

I was lucky. I grew up in a house filled with books amongst a family of readers. Not every child has that advantage.

The current Education Secretary, Mr Gove, wishes to raise standards of education in British schools. Following a review of the GCSE English Literature curriculum, the set text list is to be revised to ensure that more British authors are studied. The new GCSE course content will include at least one play by William Shakespeare, a selection of work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama. About three-quarters of the books on the list are from the “canon of English literature” and most are pre-20th Century. The Department for Education wishes the exam to be “more focused on tradition”.

Mr Gove studied English at Oxford and is reported to personally dislike Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, which has been dropped by GCSE exam boards along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘The Crucible’. Mr Gove has stated in a speech that he is disappointed when he hears of teenagers reading the Twilight books rather than something like Middlemarch. The message that is coming across is that Mr Gove wishes teenagers to read the sort of books that he has enjoyed rather than those that they may gain pleasure from. The suggestion that books are not to be read for pleasure infuriates me. If we all liked the same sorts of books then the literary world would be a poorer place indeed.

There are so many aspects of this that anger and depress me. Schools are required to teach pupils about tolerance and acceptance, yet will now have more difficulty in presenting them with works of fiction that explore diversity and the impact of inequality. For children who have not grown up in a house full of books, the texts that they will be required to study at school are as likely to turn them off reading as to instil in them a love of literature that could broaden their outlook and aspirations.

Mr Gove is showing a narrowness of imagination, a lack of understanding for what literature can offer and achieve. He is harking back to a bygone era rather than looking at the world which today’s teenagers must inhabit and will one day rule. We need readers and thinkers, not young people who regard books as anachronistic.

I suspect that, given his inability to empathise and understand the potential impact of his policies, he has been reading the wrong sort of books. He needs to diversify his bookshelves, to get inside the heads of some fictional characters who differ from the yes men he surrounds himself with. He needs to learn to listen, to see how much damage the policies he promotes will inflict on the young people whose future he purports to wish to improve. If anyone needs to be educated on the wider benefits of English literature then it is Mr Gove.







On fault and appreciation

I cannot remember a time when I did not gain pleasure and inspiration from reading books. As a child I would drink up the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five before riding my bike to the fields and glens close to my parent’s house to re-enact their exploits in my solitary play. When I was feeling down and friendless I would imagine myself to be a suffering heroine from a Frances Hodgson Burnett story, or find some aspect of my life to be glad over aka Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna.

As a teenager I read Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Forester and Tolkien, imagining myself to have the courage, stamina, intelligence and power of their famous protagonists. Although I went through a short lived stage of reading trashy romances I could not relate to these books, comforting my oft hungry heart with music rather than literature. The books that I savoured took me to worlds that I knew I could never experience, they were the stuff of dreams.

As I have grown older I have become more picky about the books I will read. I fear that I have become something of a literary snob, not an attribute to be proud of. There is a fine line between choosing wisely from the plethora of available titles and condemning an entire genre. Who am I to say what constitutes a good book?

This question has reared it’s head recently. Having carefully researched many review sites I decided that I wished to read ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace. I was aware that it was long and complex but felt comfortable with the idea of tackling such a tome. The literary snob in me believed that I could cope and benefit from such a read.

Can a book be described as good if it is not enjoyed? In a little over a month I have struggled through a mere hundred pages of this novel. As an avid reader I am feeling starved, yet I cannot bring myself to spend long in the company of this book’s unpleasant characters. I recognise that this is rather the point of the plot, but to me that point is questionable when it becomes so hard to enter the world described.

I am a monogamous reader by habit. I will plough through a Great Work of Literature for the personal satisfaction of having read it. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, however, making me question my usual resolve. I am hungry for the escape that books give me, for the feeling of satisfaction that a good story provides.

This weekend I finally succumbed to temptation and allowed myself to stray. I picked up a book recommended by my daughter, John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Oh my. I was thirsty for a good book and I found an oasis. I read it cover to cover in two sittings. I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that a book has made me cry.

It is a love story, which is not my usual choice of genre. It is about two young ‘cancer survivors’ but does not seek out sympathy, nor dwell unnecessarily on the pathos of their situation. It’s use of language is magnificent.

I love the lead female, her honesty and ability to put into words what she is thinking without glossing over the truth. I love the lead male for appearing real, with his love of computer games, bad driving, and for appreciating the girl’s attributes. What really sets the book apart for me though is how easy it is to read whilst relinquishing none of the depth of feeling, time or place. I was there with them, rooting for them, despite knowing how hopeless the outcome had to be.

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s 0.1 and 0.12 and 0.112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities […] I am grateful for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

This was a book where every word deserved to be there, was needed and served a purpose. There was nothing gratuitous, voyeuristic or pretentious. The author was not trying to show how clever, astute or sagacious he could be. His story climbed inside me and made me care. The use of language was sublime.

And all of this is, of course, just my opinion. To gain the reviews that it did, ‘Infinite Jest’ must have impressed many readers. Perhaps I am just not intelligent enough for it; perhaps it is simply not a book for me. There may be satisfaction in ploughing through to the end of a worthy work of esteemed literature. I am stubborn and am likely to keep trying to work my way through simply because I do not like to admit defeat.

In terms of recommendations though, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ has blown me away. I wish to savour this intimacy before I move on. Perhaps if you have read it you will understand.


InfiniteJest     The_Fault_in_Our_Stars