Caught by the River

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

19th July 2018

This summer, I’ll keep on towards Jerusalem with Guy Stagg whose factual account of his (atheist) pilgrimage, The Crossway has proven entrancing. Until recently, I was a strictly one book at a time type of human, and binning that has been a freaking revelation. Also on rotation: Ashleigh Young’s phenomenal essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?, Asad Haider’s inspirational Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, and Joseph Keckler’s dreamy, impish Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World. 

I’ve vaguely fallen into a non-fiction during week, novels at weekend pattern. Next to be inhaled will either be Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, the Booker winner that’s been hanging on a shelf for months (bad Pole); Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (another lonely tome—hefty hardback, what’s a person whose flat is unbearable in heat to do.) Or, should either arrive in the post this week: Sam Byer’s Perfidious Albion, which promises to be the acerbic takedown of Brexit-y buffoonery and malice that our ailing spirits need; or R.O.Kwon’s The Incendiaries. (Other deciding factors being: mood, temperature, marauding deadlines, wine content.)

The books I’m currently corralling every one else into reading: Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature—just too much fun; Olivia Laing’s Crudo (no explanation needed); Daisy Johnson’s gripping Everything Under, the heat will soothe latent shivers—ditto for Sophie Mackintosh’s ethereal The Water Cure, and, for Londoners especially, Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, cos it’s unreal and you’re better for it even though it’s deeply sad-making.

Oh and I have been, and will continue to, read and cook from Yasmin Khan’s gorgeous Zaitoun.

Rachel Joyce, The Music Shop (2017) – for lovers of that smell of Clarifol covered cardboard, vinyl and decay, set in the mid 1980s when shops were troubled by the antiseptic CD in its plastic case. This is a light, swift, incisive and evocative read from an author who knows her stuff and knows what any decent record shop needs to be in order to survive.

Geoffrey Household, Rogue Justice (1982). Many will know how Deakin and Macfarlane re-traced Household’s hero’s steps underground into a Holloway in the South West of England in the book Rogue Male. What is less known is the follow-up book. Like all good bands who repeated former albums’ glory, Household takes off where the former left us and he’s back on mainland Europe hunting down…well that’s all to be read. This is what was once known as a ‘page turner’, perfect for hot summer deckchair sessions.

As Autumn sets in, the reading material will get heavier, and Ben Myers’ Pig Iron sits there glaring at me.

It has been a summer of watery words so far, with books featuring dark, dank tales from the riverbank and the science of tides taking pride of place on my bedside table. Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under – her debut novel after the brilliant short story collection Fen – is surely destined for great things. With the river running through its heart, the book focusses on the relationship between mother and child while also exploring myth, fate, language, family and the nature of identity. Beautifully strange.

Along with Benjamin Myers’ enchanting Under the Rock, I’ve been reading Tides, the Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White, a book that combines solid travel writing with provocative scientific research into the way tides and sea-levels impact human cultures. I’m also just starting to dip my toe into Water Ways: A thousand miles along Britain’s canals by Jasper Winn. So far it’s proving to be the perfect slow adventure for a sticky summer.

Currently my bedside cabinet is, as usual, groaning with a combination of old favourites and books waiting to be read. Others are positioned strategically around the house, left on window ledges, desks, even in the garage.

Poetry collections have a wonderful affability about them, meaning you can treat them as cruelly as you like. They never take offense, even if you read a single page, and then discard them for a month, a year, a decade. Consequently John Cooper Clarke’s Ten years in an open neck shirt is currently vying with American poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Cider With Rosie has what is, for me, the best first page in literature, and so drenched in summer sun is it, that at this time of year I often return to Laurie Lee’s evocation of that June day in the grass: ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’.

I find fiction far more urgent than either poetry or non-fiction. At the moment there are several books fluttering for attention like moths round my bedside lamp. If you haven’t yet read Patrick Dewitt’s hilariously poignant and sad The Sisters Brothers, then I recommend you do so now, before the film comes out. And there’s also On Chesil Beach by Ian MacEwan to be tackled.

As to non-fiction, I’m half-way through The Book of Tides by William Thomson, an excellent and informative guide to the tides around our little island nation, which I can heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the sea, whether that be fisherman, sailor, or just someone enjoying a day on the beach.

This summer I’ll be mostly reading Wim Wenders’ Written in the West, a collection of photographs that spans the breadth of peripheral America. Seedy motels, border town strip clubs, abandoned theatres. They’re all in there. Wenders shot the photos while scouting locations for Paris, Texas, and they are as hypnotising as the film itself.

Nan Goldin’s stunning portrait anthology The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which I picked up earlier in the year. Good photographs have the power to project words onto your imagination.

A new collection: Termini. I’ve loved Tom Wood’s photography since around 2006. I remember being in London, having been on the road for a while, and stumbling on Photie Man in a bookstore. His unflinching portraits of beauty queens, gangs of marauding kids, and couples in and around the Merseyside area – betting shops, chippies, the heave of match day traffic – leafing through them was like peering into my own familiar dream memories.

The new Penguin collection of £1 classics are a gift to any broke and aspiring writer anywhere. William Burroughs’ The Finger, Primo Levi, John Berger. You can come out of the bookshop with five pocket-sized works of art for the same price as a train ticket from Birkenhead Park to New Brighton.

I’ve just got around to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is the telling of a Mississippi family coming to terms with the death of its matriarch. It’s dark and beautiful and full of internal monologues and secret ramblings. The realism and poetic slang of the Southern Gothic writers always resonates.

Finally, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains is as great a musing on lonerism, time, obsession and the hypnosis of landscape as I’ve ever read, and might be the most original thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.

My compulsive acquisition of books has recently got to the point where I felt it necessary to self-impose a buying ban. It’s in charity shops that I lack control the most, unable to resist the urge to fill my tote bag with cheap, prettily-jacketed 60s and 70s editions of things I’ve never heard of.

What with the impending festival season and consequent hours I will spend zooming round the country by train, I’m hoping that I will be able to make a bit of a dent in The Pile. I am currently engrossed in Charlotte Grieg’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, a chronicle of girl groups in pop from the 1950s through to the 1980s. As a hopeless devotee of 60s girl groups who has been gifted this book twice by different people, I probably should’ve taken the hint and got started on it sooner. It’s a total joy – straight-talking and well-researched, and full of interviews with members of bands like the Chantels, the Crystals and the Supremes. Greig’s analysis of the race and gender politics tied up with girl group music makes for particularly interesting reading.

Next in line will probably be Claire Weiss’s Unravelling the Yarn – a biography of Zoë Hart Dyke (née Bond), who created and ran the only commercial silk farm in twentieth century Britain. From humble beginnings in Leyton, Zoë Lady Hart Dyke’s fascination with silkworms, which began when she was a small child, led eventually to her running a silk farm out of Kent’s Lullingstone Castle, and supplying silk for the coronation robes of Queen Elizabeth II.

After that, who knows – perhaps Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School or Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which are all patiently waiting their turn by the side of the bed. I also recently picked up a handful of those little £1 Penguin Modern paperbacks, which are great for plugging the gaps between heavier-going reads, or for when you haven’t got much room in your bag. I chose Anaïs Nin’s The Veiled Woman, Gertrude Stein’s Food, Clarice Lispector’s Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday and Carson McCullers’ The Haunted Boy – and will no doubt be going back for more once the book-buying ban has been lifted.

Summer fills me with vague fancies of reading English country house novels (lemonade on lawns) or those set in the sort of climate the English summer famously fails to imitate (Moscato on terraces). This time I’m aiming to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, long overdue, and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, translated by Jamie McKendrick. I must first finish George Ewart Evans’s Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, recently republished by Faber. This fascinating book, first published in 1956, is an important record of rural East Suffolk life in the years before mechanisation, when the dawn of the ‘motor’ meant ‘going alone without horses’. And as part of research for a sequence I’m writing on the English Civil War, I’ll – hopefully, finally – be getting around to C.V. Wedgwood’s no doubt highly lucid three-volume history of the conflict, starting with The King’s Peace, 1637-1641.

I have a stack of books I have been, and will be, revisiting.  All neglected American novels of the kind that used to gather dust in used book shops.  Back when there were used book shops.  Books like Black Summer by Nancy Hale and Flush Times by Warren Miller; The Temptation Of Roger Heriot by Edward Newhouse and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer.  Wrinkles and Saltwater by Charles Simmons.  The Long Night by Julian Mayfield.  Thunderclap by Jack Sheridan and Night Without Sleep by Elick Moll.  And most pleasurably of all, Meyer, Meyer by Helen Hudson.  I’m also looking forward to reading two new books by favourite authors, Triangle Ray by John Holman and Assisted Living by Gary Lutz.

The East Anglian School of Painting & Drawing was always far more ramshackle than its name suggests – and much more creative. Formally opened in in an old house in Debenham, Essex in 1938 – before burning down the same year – the school re-located to a rambling collection of farm buildings known as Benton End near Hadleigh, across the border in Suffolk, where it survived well into the 1960s. Principally the lifetime endeavour of ‘Artist/Plantsman’ Cedric Morris (1889 – 1982) and his lover Arthur Lett-Haines (1894 – 1978), the school took the form of a bohemian community where luminaries such as Francis Bacon, Ossip Zadkine, Sidney Nolan, John and Myfanwy Piper, Glyn Morgan and Maggi Hambling, talked, painted, cooked, drank and occasionally scandalized the locals, all the time developing new ways of thinking about painting in a post-war world.

Morris himself not only collected and propagated one of the greatest collections of irises in the world, but painted them repeatedly in bold, explosive colours.  Admired in his own lifetime, the reputation of his work suffered after his death, but in recent years his paintings have gained a new generation of admirers, and the work is now eagerly sought after in the art market.  A recent exhibition at London’s Garden Museum has resulted in a most beautiful book, Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman, published by the Museum itself, and a complete joy to read and savour. It is already a book I shall be relishing again and again this summer. A publishing triumph.