Caught by the River

This summer, I’ll mostly be reading…(part II)

13th July 2018

As if to heighten or enhance the experience, at some point each summer I find myself drawn to books with a summer theme. So in amongst those I read for research or review, I try and read some for pleasure: recently it has been Cesare Pavese’s The Beautiful Summer, about a young group of bohemian friends in an Italian town in the 1930s, and Thomas Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree. Hardy provides escapism to a world now gone, though usually with themes that I suspect will remain timeless.

I was also recently blown away by Sebastian Barry Days Without End about the relationship between two young men on the battlefields of the American civil war. Their shared tenderness and love is a stark contrast to the bloody, futile and cruel events around them, and beautifully delivered. They are not defined by being gay, they simply are.

The graphic novel Saving Grace by Grace Wilson is an excellent debut about the tribulations of house-sharing in contemporary London, a funny, angry and lively reminder of the endless struggle of trying to live a creative life in a city that favours the wealthy. Berg by Ann Quin is one of the oddest novels I’ve read in a long time and certain images from it continue to haunt me months after finishing it. M. John Harrison is increasingly a national treasure, and an inspiration to many younger writers: his recent short story collection You Should Come With Me Now is beguiling, unnerving and brilliant and I intend to re-read his classic novel Climbers shortly.

There is absolutely no way I’m ever going to get through all the books on my reading list, and yet somehow I keep adding things to it, in the vain hope someday I’m going to be able to either clone myself or grow my own time. I’m going to Ireland for a couple of days in late July though, and hope that trip affords some peace for reading, because I’ve got three books I’m desperate to get into. The first is Crudo by Olivia Laing. Since last year I’ve been reading a lot of books about walking (and I’m particularly interested in books about walking in cities). There aren’t many options if you’re looking for female authors writing about this sort of thing, so when I found her personal story The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, I got hooked on her. Crudo is her first novel and I’m gagging to get into it.

Next is a book that’s been on my list forever, which is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. I initially found Macfarlane on Twitter – he does read-alongs with classic wildlife and woodland texts (currently he’s doing W.G. Seband’s The Rings of Saturn, which I read years ago and never really liked, but might give another try, if only for Mr McF), as well as doing some fantastic ‘word of the day’ posts which often include some great Welsh words and sayings, and it’s lovely to see the Welsh language get this sort of prominence. My favourite was a recent post about the phrase “dod yn ôl at fy nghoed” – which means to return to a balanced state of mind, but is literally translated as “to return to my trees”.

And finally, to one of my favourite genres – music memoir – I bought Annie Nightingale’s Wicked Speed a few years ago and have never read it. She’s famous for breaking the no-women ban at Radio 1, and is the longest serving BBC broadcaster. I know everyone goes on about John Peel’s role at the Beeb, but for me, Annie has always been at the forefront of breaking new talent and serving up eclectic messes on the wireless.

I guess I’m a ludicrously aspirational book-buyer. I can’t stop picking books up – but seem to have less and less time to actually read them. I promised myself when the day came that I was no longer gainfully employed in an office I’d tackle E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and War and Peace. Six years on they’re still winking at me from the shelves. So it’s no surprise come 2 a.m., before a 5 a.m. start for the airport, I’m still trying to cram a couple of late additions into the suitcase, ruffling up my other half’s vacuum-packing with some bulky whiff of mildew, and that, unlike Salman Rushdie rereading The Magic Mountain and Don Quixote on his sun lounger, I’ll only manage a couple at best of the surplus half-dozen listed below (my 1997 copy of Val Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life has returned wrapped up in the dirty shorts from at least two different continents, but I finally read it during the scorching spell here – it’s not exactly a beach read, being full of the struggle of black free jazz musicians in America in the sixties and seventies, but there are a few laughs: Albert Ayler was an accomplished golfer apparently, and favoured footwear of the leather-slippered kind with an extended tongue bent back, ‘like something a man from Sherwood Forest might wear’, according to pianist Errol Henderson). I also get a bit anally retentive over reading in situ, as it were. One year, while we sat on some scrubby grass waiting for a ferry to cross the Tagus, I read aloud (to my bored daughter) the bit where Fernando Pessoa’s assistant book-keeper in The Book of Disquiet tries to buy some bananas from a Lisbon market stall in his lunch-hour – and received some odd looks from a bunch of nearby Portuguese millennials who’d previously been enjoying their picnic (admittedly it’s not quite as great as Bernardo Soares discovering the first prints of his office group photo; Edie laughed though); I lugged Owen Hatherley’s hardback doorstep Landscapes of Communism on a sweltering rail trip through Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia (when I probably should have taken Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon); and it pains me greatly that I read Stanley Middleton’s gloomily fraught post-war bed & breakfast saga Holiday at home in London and not on a recent visit to Mablethorpe.

This year it’s the final leg of a road trip through America doing interviews for my book on record labels. No music titles in the suitcase – I can’t beat myself up any more with all those – OK, maybe a couple – but I can fantasise that I’ll trace the route through books, kicking off with a pair of re-reads (Studs Terkel, Chicago; Nelson Algren, The Neon Wilderness) then In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass; Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches; maybe Samuel Charters, The Country Blues; The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan (thanks, Jeff); Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn by Harvey Swados; and Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Oh, and really I should chuck in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (read in my twenties when I didn’t know anything) and Shirley Collins’s America Over the Water (just feel I need to read it again). I’ve got a massive backlog of homegrown stuff building up for a long autumn broke at home: Travis Elborough on parks (A Walk in the Park;) John Grindrod on the green belt (Outskirts); Melissa Harrison on Rain; Paul Morley on The North; Ian Waites on growing up on a council estate (Middlefield); Kevin Boniface on being a postman (Round About Town); Archie Hill, A Cave of Shadows; Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners; Ian Plenderleith, The Quiet Fan; Adrian Tempany, And the Sun Shines Now; Megan Dunn, Tinderbox; and more.

Maybe by next summer . . . dream on.

This summer I have three books on the go: one non-fiction, one fiction, and one poetry. I find this to be the preferred mix; any more than that and the narrative thread is lost so that the works become oddly entwined in the memory. First is Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life. The author’s heady mix of myth, storytelling, nature writing, biography, autobiography and psychology is delightfully compelling as she chisels away at our logical, civilised veneer, asking us instead to consider a more nuanced, magical approach to life in the twenty first century. For fiction I am immersed in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This is one of those books that is both story and guide so that through the eyes of the numerous, flamboyant, broken characters, the reader is offered, not just a beautiful, intricately woven tale of love and compassion in the midst of an endless politically contrived war, but a deeper insight into the history of India and Kashmir. It is a stunning piece of work that will make a better writer of me for having read it. In November, I return to India and continue to be enthralled by this multifaceted country through literature and poetry; which leads to my final book: the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The words of this Nobel Prize winning polymath from Bengal still resonate with deep relevance today: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high / Where knowledge is free / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments / By narrow domestic walls / Where words come out from the depth of truth.

It’s July again and time for my annual dose of armchair cycling in front of the TV. The Tour de France is the only sports event I’ve followed every single year since I was a teenager. With that in mind, I’m currently half way through The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell. I found this in a charity shop in Stornoway a few weeks ago. Pantani was one of the more interesting personalities in the peloton; charismatic, controversial and incredibly talented.

In light of political events in the USA over the past few years, I feel inclined to dig out my well worn copy of Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an account of his 10,000 mile road-trip across the USA in 1960. I tell anyone who asks that it’s one of my favourite books. It’s at least ten years since I last read it, so it’ll be interesting to see if my opinion has changed. Recalling some of the events he describes in the book, I get the feeling it’s still going to resonate strongly today. Looking forward to it.

On a lighter note, one of the next books I’ve got lined up is The Wrestling by Simon Garfield. A friend gave it me as a present following a late night conversation that revealed a shared interest from the days of our youth: we both used to watch ‘the wrestling’ on ITV’s World of Sport on Saturday afternoons in the 1970s. This was the era of Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Les Kellet and the Royal Brothers. Before the likes of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks came along and ruined it. You had to be there.

I’ve got to give an honourable mention to some photography books I still find myself picking up and leafing through on a regular basis. My absolute favourite is Imperial Pomp by Frank Herfort – a collection of stunning architectural photographs of Russian skyscrapers, which were all hastily built after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Herfort’s compositions, technical precision and the bizarre design of many of the buildings are beautifully presented in very high quality publication. Brilliant! Also lying on the table in front of me: The Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown and The East End in Colour 1960-1980, featuring the work of David Granick. Both were published this year by Hoxton Mini Press – a small independent publisher that specialises in photography books and loves what they’re doing.