“They fuck you up, your mum and dad” (Philip Larkin)

This post has been subject to a radical redraft.  I sat next to a monumentally annoying mother (not my own) on the train and came back and wrote an extremely ranty few paragraphs.  If I give you the first few lines, you’ll get the general idea:

Are you an aspirational, pretentious, and over-compensating parent?  Did you give up your career to raise children, and subsequently treat your offspring as a project management opportunity?  Did your own life lack meaning, and so you decided to add to our vastly over-populated planet through your own woefully mediocre gene pool?  Then this post is for you!

Oh dear. I promise I’m not a really horrible person.  I was driven temporarily insane by spending 20 minutes sat next to this woman.  I’ve decided to stick with the book recommendations I was going to make, but keep this post mercifully short so I don’t expose what a nasty, judgemental person I am any more than necessary.

Here are a couple of ideas for stories that kids might like which may not be the first to spring to mind.  They’re also established classics so if you are a certain sort of art-enforcing parent (a clue as to where my first draft rant continued to) you can gain kudos amongst your peers as you sit in your planet murdering off-road vehicles waiting for the Sushi-Making for the Under 5’s class to end (sorry, sorry, I promise I’ll stick to books from now on).

Firstly, Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale.  Stay with me here, I’m not suggesting you get your child grappling with Middle English while they’re still learning to read and write the contemporary version.  Either do your own version or read it in translation (you’ll want to check it first, Chaucer can be pretty saucy). An older man marries a younger woman (it may be over 600 years old but will still offer your child an insight into contemporary celebrity culture) who then shags a younger model behind his back (obviously this is a point you may wish to gloss over with your young charges).  Meanwhile, a delicate type also has designs on our earthy young heroine.  Well, she is gorgeous: “fair was this yonge wyf, and therwithal/As any wezele hir body gent (delicate) and small”. Er….thanks Chaucer.  Every woman wants to think she has a body as good as any weasel.  For his troubles, the delicate suitor gets not one, but two arses shoved in his face.  Firstly he kisses his beloved’s “naked ers/ful savourly” whereupon he feels “a thyng al rough and long yherd (haired)” – apparently this comely lass really does have a body like a weasel, including a hairy backside.  Away runs our young suitor, only to return for her lover to “leet fle a fart/As greet as it had been a thunder-dent” in his face, for which the farter gets a red-hot poker shoved up his rectum in retribution.  Tell me what child isn’t going to love this?  Hairy arses being kissed, farting, and pokers up the shitter.  There’s a reason Chaucer is proclaimed the greatest English poet.  Genius.

Secondly, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Seriously, Middle English literature is the place to go to, trust me.  If your child likes Merlin, they’ll love this.  If you’re one of those parents who doesn’t let their child watch TV, well, first off, stop that.  Stop it before they hate you forever.  But after that, even they don’t watch Merlin, they’ll still love it.  King Arthur has knight arrive in court  during Christmas celebrations (like the “family friends” you avoid all year but at the first sniff of turkey you’re exchanging recycled chocolate/soap gifts and making small talk over mulled wine, desperately wishing all the alcohol hadn’t evaporated so you could numb yourself to the whole stultifying experience.  Or is that just me?)  Unlike my unwelcome guests, he is a humongous green giant (no, not that one, although I suspect you still wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.  No, not the  maize-pimping one either.)  This one is a bit of snappy dresser, albeit like many fashion-types he sticks to a limited colour palette – I think you can guess which colour.  He wears a close fitting coat, an ermine trimmed cloak (how Dr Zhivago) green tights (men seemed to have abandoned that look for some reason) and gold spurs – quite some bling there.  What’s more, when Gawain (he’s the one in Merlin who always looks like he’s filming a shampoo commercial in between Round Table duties – and that’s not a criticism) chops his head off he recovers with apparent ease: smooooth.   He then challenges Gawain to the sort of endeavour that knights seem to get up to on a regular basis, in other words, it involves honour, a journey, and doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense.  At the end of it all it turns out Morgan Le Fay (Morgana in Merlin) was behind the shenanigans, as she normally is, the cheeky minx.  Everything works out in the end and happiness reigns, as well as King Arthur.  I haven’t quoted any of it here as the Middle English variant used is much harder to pick up than Chaucer, but it’s a ripping yarn and definitely worth looking out for in translation.

Happy reading!  I was going to illustrate this with a picture of the books in a playground, but my local one is always busy and I was concerned one of the feral youths would knife me if I delayed their turn on the swings (rather aptly for this post, some parts of south London really are quite medieval) so instead I’ve taken a photo of them with some Kentish ale, because firstly, I didn’t have any mead, and secondly, the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales were on their way to, well, I think you know.  And the Miller was pissed as a fart (see what I did there? ….I apologise) so he probably would have partaken of a Kentish ale or ten at some point.

“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” (John Le Carre)

This week I went and saw Skyfall. I know, I know, only weeks after everyone else.  I am never going to be one of those cool types who only listens to unsigned bands and rocks a retro look rather than looking like they haven’t bought any new clothes for a decade (I’ve been busy & I’m tall so I always bang my elbows on dressing cubicle walls which is bloody painful and puts me off, ok?)

I realised I hadn’t read any Bond novels, so I thought I would go to my beloved local charity bookshop and get one to write about here.  Like a Bond villain, I was foiled in this (not so dastardly) plan, through them not having any in stock.   However, they did have the brilliant Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book (Harper Perennial, 1965, 2009) for the bargain price of £3, which I thought was a suitable alternative.  It has the greatest cover I’ve ever seen on a cook book, and may replace Are You Hungry Tonight? Elvis’ Favourite Recipes (Bluewood Books, 1992) as my culinary bible.

I wish Len was my father, as rather than “it’s never too early to start a pension plan”, his advice runs along the lines of: “taste a new cheese two or three times a week” (in fairness to my father, he would probably endorse the latter exhortation as well as the former). I most certainly will, Mr Deighton.  As my cholesterol climbs alongside my girth I will be safe in the knowledge that I am doing your sophisticated 1960s-style bidding.  He also counsels: “Do not forgive the guest who prods or pummels your Camembert”.  I wouldn’t dream of doing so.  That kind of behaviour is unforgiveable, and frankly anyone I invite into my home is lucky to be offered any coagulated milk products.  I guard my cheese jealously, and they’re definitely not getting their hands on my Roquefort (not a euphemism).

If you want to plan a party as if you were an urbane thriller writer, Len Deighton allows the following alcohol per guest: “half a bottle per head each two hours. Oddly enough, for each subsequent two hours you must allow three-quarters of a bottle per head, since drinking will increase if they haven’t gone by then”.  Oddly enough? Oddly enough?  That throwaway adverbial phrase creates a casual tone that belies the fact that for a guest who arrives at 9pm and leaves at 3am (because who’s going to leave after 2 hours?  How shit is this party?) Len Deighton suggests you need 3 entire bottles per person.  I’ve been a student for more of my adult life than is strictly decent, and even to me that seems….actually, fair play.  Maybe allow a few extra just in case.

But this isn’t supposed to be a blog about cookery books, which is clearly working well so far. Third entry and I’m totally off topic.  Fear not, I will redeem myself thusly: for spy fiction, even if you don’t normally read spy fiction, Madame Bibi recommends Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box novels. I don’t normally read spy fiction (hence Ian Fleming and I are strangers, and my local charity shop conspires to keep us so) but I made an exception for these as Mark Gatiss seems totally lovely so I’m happy to give him my money, and he has done such a great job writing various television scripts over the last few years that I reasoned I was probably in safe hands.

How right I was.  The Vesuvius Club (2004), The Devil in Amber (2006), Black Butterfly (2008) (all Pocket Books) are all witty, plot-driven light reads that revel in the genre.  You’ll enjoy them, I promise, it’s impossible not to as they clearly are enjoying themselves so much:

“I nodded and took out my cigarette case. It is flat and well-polished with my initials in Gothic script upon it, yet it has never been called upon to save my life by absorbing the impact of a bullet. That’s what servants are for.”

You have to be a bit in love with the hero in this type of story, and here it’s easy as Lucifer is described as completely gorgeous, and in possession of that type of arch, dry wit that makes me think he’d be a nonchalant cigarette smoker:

“It was midway between the fish course and the pudding, as Supple began another interminable tale, that I did the decent thing and shot him.”

Plus he likes boys and girls, so there’s none of that probably-overcompensating-for-something-that-happened-at-Eton vibe that you get with Bond.

Lucifer is also brave and dashing, adept at everything, and more than likely slightly sociopathic – all you would expect from your heroic spy:

“Taking up a desert spoon, I dug it into Supple’s left socket and carefully removed the old fellow’s glass eye…I looked at the iris and smiled. It was just the shade of green I had in mind for a new tie and now I had a match for my tailor.  What a happy accident!”

Alas, apparently there are no plans for any further Lucifer outings, but at least that means you can embrace these without worrying they will descend into formulaic flabbiness, unlike some other series that suck you in then break your heart with their money-grubbing mediocrity ………..no names.

Here are my books exchanging a message (OK, my ticket to Skyfall) on a park bench in true spy style (before it all went digital). Admittedly it should probably have been St James’ and not Regent’s Park, but I was closer to Regent’s and I’m very, very lazy.  My copy of The Vesuvius Club is in cunning disguise as Are You Hungry Tonight?

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The drop went OK, in case you were wondering.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Samuel Johnson)

So, to start I thought I’d look at my home city.  I am Londoner born and bred – that’s the truth, people.  Sometime in the last few years perceptions of London seem to have got confused with those of LA, and taxi drivers don’t believe any one is born here, they only move here.  Tedious conversations regarding my birthplace are the price I pay for one the best things about London: the constant ebb and flow of people from just about everywhere. Anyone of these people who live in London will tell you that this great city (for great it is, far from perfect, but still great, like Battersea Power Station) suffers in its portrayals.  Actually that’s not true.  I suspect a lot of Londoners haven’t given a second thought as to how their city is portrayed.  They don’t give a shit.  And that, that is what makes them Londoners.  How I miss it when I’m away.

I digress…. as I was failing to say, rarely am I presented with a London I recognise (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland aside, which I truly recognised, given that it was partly shot in my local supermarket.  Don’t let that banal detail put you off, it’s a very good film, you should watch it). Yet there are a few examples of London literature that Madam Bibi recommends.

Firstly, The Room of Lost Things, by Stella Duffy (Virago, 2008).  Robert teaches Akeel the ropes of the dry cleaning business in Loughborough Junction.  Over a cup of tea they shake hands in contract: “They hardly know each other.  It’s a beginning.”  This beginning leads to a delicate, unspoken understanding between two very different characters. The men are the protagonists of the novel, but South London is the hero.

“Robert hears a shout from below and turns round to look back up Coldharbour Lane to where Dan is whooping and Charlie grinning from their perch on his old settee, the one he dragged out two nights ago. They lift their Special Brew cans like hand weights and belch belly laughs as one after the other, and slowly, half a dozen crates of carefully stacked tomatoes and red peppers and potatoes fall from their perfect positioning outside the halal shop and flow into the road, a guilty skateboarder racing off, the mix of brown and clashing reds running into the gutter.”

Beautiful, right?  And so completely London. Stella Duffy looks at people and the city with an entirely unsentimental eye, and yet still shows the beauty that exists in places where it’s not usually looked for or expected.

As a proud south Londoner (we are a beleaguered people, yet secure in the knowledge that the great advantage of our part of the city is a distinct lack of smug north Londoners) it pleased me to see the bus I caught to work for 4 years on the cover of this artfully written, closely observed novel.  The 345 even has a supporting role in the story.  If you want to know the breadth of South London (and why wouldn’t you?) catch this bus for the duration of its route.  From the sterile squares of South Ken to the not-so-sterile streets of Peckham, it’s a most unlikely journey.  One time I caught the 345 at a bus stop littered with a lobster carcass, and I got off at a bus stop littered with chicken bones.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which direction I was travelling in. Back to The Room of Lost Things: “A regular river crossing is the gift of South London.”

Secondly, the poetry of Tobias Hill. If you find contemporary poetry off-putting but fancy giving it a chance, there are worse places to start than this accessible poet who looks unflinchingly at the isolation that exists within the crowds of cities, and casts a unique perspective through inventive language.  In his second volume Midnight in the City of Clocks (Oxford University Press, 1996) there are poems about Japanese cities and Rio as well as London.  For Zoo (Oxford University Press, 1996), Tobias Hill was the inaugural Poet for Zoos, and writes about London Zoo in particular. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow (Salt, 2006, 2007) is his most recent collection and includes A Year in London, with a poem for each month.  Here is the first stanza of November:

London – there’s a rhythm to the name,

its ending an echo of its beginning,

as if London were the name of somewhere

full to the brim with its own echoes.”

This is what Tobias Hill does so well – points out something you can’t believe you hadn’t noticed before, and makes the wholly familiar newly unsettling.

Finally, James Boswell’s London Journal (Penguin).  Unlike my previous examples, I can’t claim for the veracity of the portrayal of London, seeing as how it was written in 1762-3. What I can vouch for is that it’s a brilliantly entertaining read.  James Boswell is 22, arriving in London for the second time in his life, and completely in love with the city and all it offers.  He evokes London in vivid detail: the people in high society, the prostitutes in the parks, chestnut sellers, his nights at the opera and theatre, visits to exhibitions, and his restaurant meals.

“The conversation was on indifferent common topics.  The Peace.  Lord Bute. Footmen & Cookery. I went to Douglasse’s & drank tea. I next went & called in Southampton Street Strand, for Miss Sally Forrester my first love.  Who lived at the blue Periwig.  I found that the People of the house were broke & dead & could hear nothing of her.  I also called for Miss Jenny Wells in Barrack Street Soho, and found that she was fled and they knew not whither & had been ruined with extravagance.”

It’s unintentionally funny; Boswell wants to be so much better than he is, and that remains timeless.  “Since my being honoured with the friendship of Mr Johnson [Samuel, who provided the title of this entry], I have more seriously considered the dutys of Morality and Religion, and the dignity of Human Nature.  I have considered that promiscuous concubinage is certainly wrong…. Notwithstanding of these Reflections, I have stooped to mean profligacy even yesterday.”

Oh James, we’ve all been there, led astray by the city.  I haven’t slept with a prostitute in ages (that’s a joke, promise), but my own internal struggle is usually along the following lines: “I need to lose weight.  I’m going on a diet…. But if God wanted me to be thinner, he wouldn’t have invented cheese…..or wine……or France……or Europe….or the Middle East.  I’m hungry. That’s it, I’m off to Edgware Road.”  Damn you, Edgware Road.

And so to finish, I choose neither North nor South London, but directly in between, and one of the greatest ground level (OK, slightly elevated, otherwise you’d get wet) views you can find in the city –immortalised by Ray Davies for a reason.  Here are my books on Waterloo Bridge. (We caught the 345 to Battersea Bridge and walked east along the river to get there).  I had hoped to capture the books in front of the view (that would have made a decent photo), but I couldn’t work out how to do this safely – leaping into the Thames in a failed rescue attempt of my rapidly disappearing books would not impress the river police, I fear.  So instead a poor photo of the view, and a picture of my books precariously balanced on the bridge, much to the bemusement of the Scandinavian tourists just out of shot, who watched my every move without offering to help.  Maybe they thought it was a weird English thing, which I suppose it sort of was.   I hope they enjoyed their trip to London, and that they read a book that captures the atmosphere for them as they remember it.

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Maybe if you squint, turn your head sideways and jiggle the screen a little, you’ll get the photo I was aiming for….

“We read to know we are not alone” (CS Lewis)

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My first blog post: where I’ll try & give an idea of what I hope to do. I want to write about the books I’ve read and the life that’s led around, above and between those books and hopefully be entertaining along the way (this may involve some tactical embellishment on the life part.  Me on the sofa with a book in hand, cat on my lap, and Diagnosis Murder re-runs in the background is my ideal afternoon, but not that interesting to others, for reasons that I respect but don’t entirely fathom.  Incidentally, I’m not 108 years old.  Only in spirit, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.) I hope to give you some ideas about books to read, (and for you to return the favour) and remind you of books you’ve read & what they mean to you.   I’m not going to critique books or provide piercing insights (although I keep my fingers crossed that some will battle their way through my limited intellect onto these pages) but more take a personal look at books in a way that I hope resonates with you, fellow book lover.  I hope to provide my first proper post in the next few days, in the meantime here is a photo of one of the most beautiful libraries in the world – the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.  I don’t know who the man on the steps is but I hope he found the book he was looking for.