Caught by the River

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

17th July 2018

This summer I’ve been trying to make room for new books by reading ones I’d forgotten I had, including two very personal books spawned by the turmoil of the Second World War, which seem right for a summer of such political chaos. I’ve no idea how I got hold of Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Desperate Man, but I’m glad I did. It is a very powerful curiosity, a journal begun in 1936 by a minor aristocrat, deeply conservative, with a passionate hatred of the Nazis. His descriptions from his Bavarian home of Hitler’s rise and the catastrophe of war give a rare German perspective on events we think we know. The journal ends in 1944, when Reck stood up to the authorities once too often. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin is a classic I wish I’d read earlier. It’s a slim volume, not a word out of place, both very funny and deeply sad in its account of a Russian professor, driven from Europe by the war, trying to make sense of his new life teaching in the Eastern USA. It’s as moving as anything I’ve read for a long time.

The book I am looking forward to reading this summer is another brilliant publication from Little Toller. Cornerstones: Subterranean Writings is due on July 23rd , and is edited by Mark Smalley – the producer of the Radio 3 series broadcast under the same name from 2014 to 2018 in which artists and writers were invited to contemplate how geology has influenced their lives. There is one contribution (perhaps more, but this one I know about, having recently read it on Little Toller’s online magazine The Clearing) that was not part of the original radio series – Tim Dee’s ‘My Rock’, a superb extended metaphor on the geology and archeology of kidney stones. No one can improvise like he does and command the audience’s attention for so long. And all the better for being a tribute to the year he bowed out as a producer and became a full-time writer.

The bookshop hasn’t yielded anything mind-blowing for a while, so I’m rereading, appropriately enough, A Land – Jacquetta Hawkes’ marvellous classic, which does indeed blow my mind every time. Philosophy, archeology, shamanism, her story of the 18 months in 1949 when ” life took hold of me and quite suddenly my imagination was opened and my sensibilities aroused”. Thank you Jacquetta.                           

Landfill isn’t far off (publication in September) and then we must prepare ourselves for Underland (May 2019).  Cornerstones could be the perfect overture.

This summer, I will mostly be reading…the books my mum bought me that somehow I never got round to picking up or finishing. There are some good ones as well, bought I expect due to the fact she knew I wrote for this site. They include On Trails by Robert Moor, an exploration of paths and lines made by the innate desire of living things to wander. Also on the list is Landskipping by Anna Pavord, The Last London by Iain Sinclair and Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, all with the prices neatly obscured by thick marker or removed from the dust jacket with a precisely cut triangle as befitted their gift status. And of course, the classic: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which I like to think of as a nature book-reader’s Ulysses – though, on my first attempt, slightly more impenetrable. I must try again. I will doubtless find each of them fascinating, but since my mum died at the end of May after a short and one-sided battle with cancer, she’ll never know. The next best and indeed only thing I can do is just read and enjoy them.

The fiftieth anniversary of May ’68 felt rather muted – perhaps this was because les événements have been subject to an anniversary of one form or another since the first Parisian cobblestone was removed in search of the beach. Fifty years is quite a long time to keep that particular show on the road, even for the soixante-huitards.

I am therefore greatly looking forward to Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon and his explanation of why so many enragés recently placed their faith in En Marche! Reims’ book should also provide a good opportunity to re-read Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras as a sort of first remove companion piece.

I recently read the collected short stories of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, which were a revelation and hope to disappear into two of her novels: Near To The Wild Heart, her debut from 1943, and the much later The Hour of The Star.

The Deadhead in me – essentially, me – also can’t wait to read How To Change Your Mind, The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan.

Still it sits there…part read…feared. Turning Blue by Ben Myers. He’s a close friend and the least terrifying man on the planet…until he puts pen to paper. I must finish that book…and then The Gallows Pole…and there he goes again with the brutal.

Surely I’ll be safe with Under the Rock…and that’s what I will take to Swedish Lapland with me this year for my holiday read.

Currently I’m fully immersed in Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. It was bought for me as a present by my better half, presumably because she’s had to listen to me listening to the Slits for so many hours over so many years. It took me ages to pick it up and read it (there’s a theme emerging perhaps). Once I did pick it up, I was enthralled. Immediately.

Short chapters, simply and economically written. The perfect bog book. It’s in three acts really…pre-Slits. Slits. Post-Slits. Visceral, honest writing throughout.

Yes, as a punk in the late 70s, I was interested in Viv’s take on the endlessly churned out narrative…Sex, Westwood, Malcolm, Rotten, The Clash and all that. And that period IS fascinating to read about…if a little depressing too. Bad love. Bad blow jobs. Bad health. Bad music. This small coterie of friends congregating in a West London fetish shop…what if these people were in Scarborough…or Bingley…or Stockton? Punk would never have happened. The music business and media would not have been there. No-one would have cared.

The tales of heartache with Mick Jones are laden with pathos…evenings of junk with Johnny Thunders even more gut-wrenchingly sad…

But there’s so much more to the book. The personal struggle of a young girl to be creative and to have some personal honour are inspiring. Viv’s irritation with Ari up and intolerance of Palmolive… all beautifully described with the complete self-awareness of a mature Viv.

I love this book…and I’m not done with it yet. The post-Slits act is probably the one most rich with drama, jeopardy and all those things you look for in a riveting story. It really is all birth, death, love, shit, blood and guts and cancer…with a hefty dose of infidelity thrown into the mix. Maybe Ben Myers isn’t so scary after all.

That Vincent Gallo though…

I got my holiday in early this year, and one of the books I read was Viv Albertine’s astonishing second autobiography, To Throw Away Unopened. I bought it without knowing anything about it, except that I’d really enjoyed Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, which chronicles her life as a woman in punk and since. To Throw Away Unopened turns out to be an astonishingly raw, brutal, honest (I assume), angry, hilarious book about the death of her mother, her family history, and her relationship with her sister and some distinctly undeserving men. It’s completely compelling, extremely unusual, quite disturbing and very funny.

I plan to read Sarah Hall’s collection of short stories, Madame Zero, which came out last year – I love all her books, but particularly so her novels set in the Lake District, The Carhullan ArmyThe Wolf Border and Haweswater. And I’ve been saving Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which came out a couple of years ago; her Bel Canto completely bowled me over, and she’s got a new one, Clock Dance, out now too.

While I was on holiday, friends were posting their “seven books I have loved or that have stayed with me” on Facebook, and that’s given me quite a reading list of authors I wasn’t familiar with to track down – among them Georges Perec, Antonio Logue and Peter Benson.

This summer I’ll be continuing to read Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane.

After reading – Requiem: A Hallucination by Antonio Tabucchi last summer while away, I intend to look into his short stories, starting with – Times Ages in a Hurry.

The catalogue by Antoon Melissen and David Leiber focused on the grid-based papier mâché reliefs of Jan Schoonhoven.

Continuing the Dutch theme – Grasses and Trees: very short stories by A.L. Snijders, chosen and translated by Lydia Davis (if I can find a copy of it.)

Finally – a book that has been on my reading list for a while, The Forest in Folklore and Mythology – by Alexander Porteous – “a mind-expanding compendium of facts, folklore, superstitions, myths, and anecdotes about trees and the forest.”

My first year of parenthood has meant a bedside pile of books that is now leaning precipitously. But with sleep now more predictable and the long evenings stretching out, I am at last losing myself once again in inspiring tales of aimless wanderers, pioneering swimmers and outdoor fetishists.

I have recently finished Lauren Elkin’s spectacular Flâneuse, an all-encompassing study of women walking the streets of the world’s greatest cities, blended with the kind of searing memoir I can only dream of writing. Next up is the recently released Haunts of the Black Masseur – I’ll be re-reading Charles Sprawson’s classic while undertaking my latest swimming mission (read, fool’s errand) – visiting pools in all of New York’s boroughs in a single day. Once back, I’ll be making time at last for Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River – I can’t wait to wend my way along Britain’s rivers in the company of a fellow Roger Deakin acolyte.