“Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” (Homer Simpson)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about novels featuring dinner parties with truly horrible people. If you thought that post was depressing…welcome to its companion piece, all about alcoholics. Happy New Year!

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So, alcohol seemed an obvious theme for a new year’s post, but I apologise in advance for just how bleak my choices are. Excellently written novels, but on finishing them I did wonder if there were enough kittens on YouTube to aid my recovery…

Firstly, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929-1934) a trilogy of novels about people who work in and frequent The Midnight Bell pub on the Euston Road between the two World Wars. The trilogy begins with barman Bob:

“The gas-lit walls and objects around him were heavy with his own depression – the depression of one who awakes from excess in the late afternoon. Only at dawn should a man awake from excess – at dawn agleam with red and sorrowful resolve. The late, dark afternoon, with an evening’s toil ahead, affords no such palliation.”

Bob is frustrated writer who never does any writing, and he falls for Jenny, a prostitute. As he pursues her, the reader can see so clearly what Bob cannot: that he will never win her, and she will only suck him financially dry. Hamilton is a sensitive and non-judgemental writer, and so the reader isn’t positioned to judge Bob for his stupidity nor Jenny for her avarice. Instead we are shown that Bob is deluded, and pushing his fantasies onto Jenny. For her, this is a common occurrence, she is paid to be what men want her to be.  When Bob comes to his senses, he doesn’t judge her harshly:

“He believed it was not her fault. Existence had abused her and made her what she was; poverty had crushed him and made him unable to help her. He knew he had never made any impression on her, and never would have done so. He knew that it had all come from him, and only the obsession and hysteria of pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation.”

It is a sad tale, about the capacity to lie to ourselves, and the fantasies used to hide from life. Hamilton does inject humour at times to lighten the tale slightly:

“ ‘Talking to those Prostitutes,’ said Ella…

Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated Pros, and beyond the pale.”

Ultimately, though, a sense of sad, quiet desperation pervades.

The second tale goes back in time to show how Jenny became a sex worker. She is frustrated by the restraints on women’s behaviour and life choices at this time. But then Jenny discovers the love of her life, alcohol:

“This was her ruin – she was getting drunk again. This was the turning point of her life. If she lost her will now she had lost all. Yet why not? With one word of assent she could be lifted from undreamed of woe to undreamed of bliss – step out from her deep unhappiness as from a garment. She could be free of all care. She could have a grand time.”

And we know where this takes her. Like Bob, Jenny seeks an escape into something which cannot sustain her. Unlike Bob, she does not move on, and her life becomes hopeless.

The third tale belongs to Ella, running parallel to Bob’s. Ella is different, in that she is a realist, and has somehow managed not to give up all hope. She is in love with Bob but knows he will never feel the same. She is courted by an older man, whom she considers marrying, despite her misgivings, as she knows he will help support her dissolute mother:

“ ‘Call me Ernest in Ernest, eh!’ said Mr Eccles.  ‘That’s rather a good one. I must remember that.’

Oh dear, thought Ella, if that was his idea of a good one, it was a poor outlook for the more frothy side of their proposed future as an engaged couple.”

Hamilton gives Ella the most humour in her voice, and I was really rooting for her not to marry Eccles (despite it meaning she would adopt his excellent cakey name), not to despair and not to give up.

 “The Ring, and after eight weeks, enslavement for life – a life of Sundays in which she walked respectably round Regent’s Park with this rather elderly, rather good-looking, arch, often irritable, self-conscious bowler-hatted maniac who had never rightly understood a single thought going on in her head!”

I finished Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky feeling, frankly, depressed. This is an indication of its excellence though: the characters are believable, the portrayals sensitive, the writing sharply observed.

The BBC adapted Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky in 2006. I saw it at the time and from my memory it was very good. Some kind soul has uploaded all 3 episodes to YouTube and it stars the wonderful Sally Hawkins as the luckless Ella, so definitely worth a look.

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Secondly, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1957-1968) a beat generation classic set amongst the drug addicts, sex workers and hustlers of Brooklyn. Despite being a hugely famous book, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Hence: a trigger warning of extreme subject matter to follow. The lives Selby depicts are unrelenting in their brutality and extreme violence. Each section focuses on a different character, beginning with Georgette, a transsexual prostitute:

“Her life didnt revolve, but spun centrifugally, around stimulants, opiates, johns (who paid her to dance for them in womens panties then ripped them off her; bisexuals who told their wives they were going out with the boys and spent the night with Georgette (she trying to imagine they were Vinnie)), the freakish precipitate coming to the top.”

Poor Georgette is fundamentally a romantic, who desperately wants to be loved, but looks for it in all the wrong places. To be honest, I couldn’t see that anyone would find even a grain of human kindness in Selby’s Brooklyn, let alone love. Selby’s style is stream of consciousness, avoiding punctuation so as not to disrupt the flow, in an attempt to capture the authentic voices of the characters. He does this brilliantly, and his artfulness does not disrupt from the sense of chaos in the character’s lives. The style is perfect for the story he wants to tell.

Selby has great feeling for the people whose lives he wants to depict. He does not judge them, but tries to present their lives truthfully without sentimentality. He certainly has more compassion for them than they have for themselves:

“his disgust seeming to wrap itself around him as a snake slowly, methodically and painfully squeezing the life from him, but each time it reached the point where just the slightest more pressure would bring an end to everything; life, misery, pain, it stopped tightening, retained the pressure and Harry just hung there his body alive with pain, his mind sick with disgust.”

In all honesty, this was nearly a rare DNF for me. Not because it was a terrible book, but because it was just an unrelentingly tough read. There is a horrific depiction of rape at one point, of Tralala, a prostitute, and I just didn’t know if I could go on. Apparently Selby himself had to go to bed for two weeks after writing that story. What kept me going was that Selby is a great writer, and I’m glad I did, (despite then having to read about the crucifixion of a paedophile) because the last section of the book was my favourite. It is a montage piece cutting across various inhabitants in the course of a day, and really gives a sense of the neighbourhood and the lives therein. Ada in particular was very affecting – a grieving, eccentric widow, desperately lonely and sitting outside on a bench all day:

“Ada almost yelled at them, but stopped as she noticed that now women were coming down and people were going to the store and children were running and laughing and the sun was getting brighter and warmer and a few men straddled a bench with a checker board between them and maybe someone would sit down next to her and they would talk.”

So, an incredibly powerful piece of writing, but one that I’m glad is over for me. Last Exit to Brooklyn was also adapted into a film, in 1989. I always try and avoid absolute resolutions, but I feel fairly safe saying there is no way I will ever be watching it…

To end, a question for you Reader: why is it when people say “Why does no-one write songs with stories anymore?” (which is true) they so often follow up the comment with “You know, like Richard Marx?” It’s very distressing, because after I’ve finished rending my garments, I have physically restrain them and force them to listen to Leonard Cohen and Squeeze. Here is a song about an alcoholic by the much-underrated band. Not their finest, but so apt for this post. I don’t really worry about my drinking, but the lyric “Like some kind of witch, with blue fingers in mittens/She smells like the cats, and the neighbours she sickens” does make me worry that Glenn Tillbrook has seen my future… where did I put those YouTube kittens?

“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” (Robert Frost)

Oh, the joys of mid-January.  The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all.  The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work.  Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise the barbarian you share a kitchen with has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone.  This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.

Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel.  It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public.  His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:

“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them.  Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort.  The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets.  That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart.  It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”

Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch.  Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him.  But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:

“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head.  Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.

I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.

‘Mailman! Mailman!  Don’t you have a letter for me?’

‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’

‘But I know you have a letter for me!’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’

‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’

‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’

She started to reach for a handful of letters.

‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY!  THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’

I turned and walked off.

“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”

Another woman stood on her porch.

‘You’re late today.’

‘Yes, mam.’

‘Where’s my regular man today?’

‘He’s dying of cancer.’

‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

I handed her mail to her.

‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’

‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’

I turned and walked on.”

Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day.  If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.

Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher.  I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction.  (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in.  It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it.  If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III.  If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you.  It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast.  Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…

“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.

‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’

I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress.  Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.

We have begun.”

Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.

“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’.  The result is a disaster.  Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime.  Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others.  Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”

Ah yes, the crutches.  If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches.  What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement.  The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:

The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality).  But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:

“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse.  In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”

The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:

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Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.

To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices:

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” (Groucho Marx)

Unlike Groucho Marx, I quite like television.  I say this in the full acknowledgement that at least 99% of it is shocking in its lack of aspiration towards anything other than cheaply-made sensationalist drivel.  And (unsurprisingly) it will never be as rewarding to me as reading is.  But some of the programmes of recent years have just been astonishing.  I’m careful how I use TV, which essentially means I never channel surf to sit mindlessly in front of  America’s Next Top Gypsy Teenage Mom Hoarder Bounty Hunter Bride’s Got Talent or whatever else the channels are filling their many hours with repeats of.  I choose what I’m going to watch, and then my addictive personality traits emerge as I stack up hour upon hour to watch in a big binge.

This is why I’ve only just started on Mad Men Season 6. But aside from my unhealthy habits, there was another reason why I stacked up the episodes.  Fear.  I was so worried it wouldn’t live up to itself.  Surely, I thought, they’re due to screw it up?  They’ll take this piece of TV perfection and turn it into yet another series that lost its way and sends fans apoplectic with grief at the betrayal?  I needn’t have worried.  A few minutes in to the first episode, there was a moment so completely perfect I nearly wept with relief at the beauty of it all. (For those of you who haven’t sold your soul to Rupert Murdoch in the name of timely programming, and therefore haven’t seen season 6 yet, don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler). Here it is, the moment: Don Draper is on the beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s Inferno.  That’s it. Damn, Matthew Weiner is a bona fide genius.  Everything you need to know about a character distilled into one perfect moment.  Don Draper, living the life everyone wants: gorgeous and successful, beautiful loving wife sipping cocktails next to him, relaxing on a beach in luxury, reading about the nine circles of Hell.  I could’ve kissed the screen.  If I wasn’t such an appalling housekeeper & so my TV covered in dust, I would have.

And then this got me thinking about other moments in TV where books are used as a visual clue to as to the reader’s personality.  There’s the time in The Wire where McNulty (police officer) goes to Stringer Bell’s (drug lord’s)apartment, picks up a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and is so wrong-footed by it he wonders aloud “Who the fuck was I chasing?” But often it’s unspoken, and funny: Marcus, the scarily shark-eyed ten- year- old in Spy, reading The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) or Machiavelli’s The Prince; Gromit’s many punning titles of great novels (my favourite: Crime and Punishment by Fido Dogstoyevsky).  It’s a great opportunity to flesh out a character (even a plasticine dog) without using any dialogue, in a matter of seconds.  A wordless conversation between the programme makers and the viewer.  So in celebration of such moments, here are two TV characters and the books I’d like to see them read (and proof, if proof were needed, that Matthew Weiner is not lying awake at night worrying that I’m about to emerge as a rival TV-producer-of-substantial-genius)…

Firstly, in celebration of the series return via Netflix, Gob from Arrested Development, for whom I recommend The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989, my copy 1996, Minerva).  The uninitiated can view some of Gob’s moments here:

Gob is a lunatic, obsessed with stage magic but woefully inept at its execution, a wannabe alpha male who will never lead the pack, despised by his mother and barely tolerated by the rest of his family.  And he travels everywhere by Segway.  I decided on The Joy Luck Club because I feel Gob could benefit from some positive female energy in his life, and this tale of two generations of mothers and daughters will immerse him in oestrogen-fuelled drama.  It will also show him the power of unconditional love of parents for their children, something entirely lacking in his own life.  The club of the title is a group of Chinese immigrant women who are living in San Francisco, and who get together to play mah jong.  At the start of the novel one of the women, Suyuan, has died, and her daughter, Jing-Mei/June has been asked to take her place.  The novel is divided into four sections as the three remaining mothers and each of the four daughters tells their story.  The tales explore the experience of the women back in China, and their daughters’ experiences as the first generation growing up in San Francisco.  The communication difficulties across the generations are contextualised within an Asian-American experience, but are really universal:

“For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out.  And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me.  She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid….I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.” (Ying-Ying St.Clair)

“During our brief tour of the house, she’s already found the flaws.  She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is “running down”.  She thinks the guest room where she will be staying – which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof – has “two lopsides”.  She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas  jumping up in the air – pah! pah! pah! – like little spatters of hot oil.  My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.  She can see all this.  And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts.  But then I look around and everything she said is true.” (Lena St.Clair)

The novel has been accused by some of dealing in racial stereotypes, but I think what limits this is Tan’s ability to create seven strong, original, fully drawn female characters and explore their idiosyncratic relationships.  The voices of the members of The Joy Club Club are memorable and distinctive.

Secondly, Annie from Community, for whom I recommend Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982, my copy 2000, Canongate). The uninitiated can view some of Annie’s moments here:

Oh, Annie, with your relentlessly perky expression and upbeat attitude, your array of tastefully coloured angora jumpers and perfectly organised stationery.  Every now and again the strain shows and the façade crumbles, and Bukowski will teach you that that is where the interesting stuff happens.  Come join us on the darkside, Annie, you know you want to…… Ham on Rye is Bukowski’s most autobiographical novel, and follows his alter-ego Henry Chinaski through an abusive childhood and into an early adulthood where his main source of support and meaning is found in a bottle.   After his first experience with alcohol, drinking his friend’s father’s wine, Henry sits on a bench and reflects:

“I thought, well, now I have found something.  I have found something that is going to help me, for a long time to come.  The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder.”

The only other positive experience Henry has in a childhood filled with violence and deprivation is when a teacher praises his creativity and reads aloud an essay he has written:

“Everybody was listening.  My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs Fretag’s shoes and piled up on the floor… I drank in my words like a thirsty man.  I even began to believe some of them[…]So that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools.”

Bukowski is a legend of the beat generation and his reputation for hard-living precedes him.  In some ways this is unfortunate, as it suggests a reputation built on image rather than skill.  But he’s a really beautiful writer who Capote could never accuse of typing, not writing.  For all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is what happens when Henry discovers the joys of the library:

“It was a joy. Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum.  If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”

Gorgeous.  Moments like that shine out like beacons amongst the violence and bleakness of Henry’s existence; Ham on Rye is a fantastic reminder of why we read.

Here are Gob and Annie with their books:

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