………..The new 007 novel, Solo, is out this week. William Boyd is the latest in a series of successful authors to be invited by Ian Fleming’s estate to write a novel starring my 2nd greatest hero of all time and the second greatest number 7 of all time (nothing will ever surpass Eric Cantona in my heart!). And as a result William Boyd is suddenly everywhere.
Driving home from work mid-week he was interviewed by Dominic Lawson on the Front Row programme on BBC Radio 4. (If you’ve never listened to Front Row, give it a go – I think it’s the most interesting and enjoyable programme on the radio – even better than my usual BBC Radio 6 Music!!!!!)
The interview was fascinating, full on little insights into the process of writing the book, how he’d been invited by the Fleming family and the flexibility they’d given him in writing his 007 novel. But perhaps most illuminating was things he’d picked up in his research – which in part consisted of scouring the whole back catalogue of Fleming’s writing about James Bond.
Being a parochial and passionate Scotsman I was glued to his discoveries about Bonds Scottish ancestry (007 turns out to be half-Scots and half-Swiss!) and his descriptions of how he’d filtered this, and some Lowland Scots dialect, into Solo. But it wasn’t just about Scotland. There was for example a great exchange between Boyd and Lawson about Bonds preference for showers over baths – and the symbolism and relevance of this. I know that doesn’t sound brilliant but it was!
I’m really looking forward to reading Solo on the strength of how much I enjoyed reading William Boyd’s books ‘Restless’ and ‘Waiting For Sunrise’ earlier this year – and of course on strength of how much I’ve enjoyed reading and watching 007 over the years. And I hope it’ll be good. The reviews so far are a bit mixed but I’m keeping my fingers crossed even though the recent Bond books written by other well known authors would read a little bit like my beloved Manchester United’s start to this season – Bond v Deaver, a defeat and Bond v Faulks a draw! Let’s hope Bond v Boyd sees the books score their first victory!
And as I am on the subject of 007, if you are interested in listening to that William Boyd interview with Dominic Lawson, you’ll find it here!
And for further entertainment on things 007, below is the link to a short Guardian Quiz on Bond villains – I got 7/10 so that’s your target to beat. Let me know how you get on!
And of course what’s the point in a blog post about the second best number 7 of all time if you can’t squeeze in a homage to the best – this is Eric – the best at his very best!!!! To paraphrase, THIS IS NOT A MAN THIS IS CANTONA
………….He waits. That’s what he does…………..and I’ll tell you what……………tick followed tock, followed tick, followed tock, followed tick…………ah yes good things come to those who wait – and it’s not just Arthur Guinness who knows that! Though this, my favourite of his ads, epitomises waiting for good things!
I know it too! There are three things in my life that, for me, are always well worth waiting on.
It’s worth waiting for the two stages of pouring a pint of Guinness – watching that head grow and settle – lovely!
It’s worth waiting for my partner to get ready when we go out – she always emerges late but she’s always absolutely beautiful and I feel wonderful to think she’ll be going out with me!
And it’s worth waiting for an Ian Rankin novel – they are always good, sometimes great, and occasionally, like this one, truly special!
To all intents and purposes, Standing In Another Man’s Grave is the comeback of ex-DI John Rebus. Now I’ve missed him since Ian Rankin “retired” Rebus. But it wasn’t until he emerged as a character in this book, on the very first page of it, that I realised just how much I’d missed him!
He’d made sure he wasn’t standing too near the open grave. Closed ranks of the other mourners between him and it. …….Rain wasn’t quite falling yet, but it had a scheduled appointment. The cemetery was fairly new, sited on the south-eastern outskirts of the city. He had skipped the church service, just as he would skip the drinks and sandwiches after. He was studying the backs of heads: hunched shoulders, twitches, sneezes and throat-clearings. There were people here he knew, but probably not many………..Words were being uttered but he couldn’t catch all of them. There was no mention of the cancer. Jimmy Wallace had been ‘cruelly taken’, leaving a widow and three children, plus five grandkids. Those kids would be down the front somewhere, mostly old enough to know what was going on. Their grandmother had given voice to a single piercing wail and was being comforted.
Christ, he needed a cigarette.
I simply wallowed and luxuriated in this first paragraph, and from there to the end, Ian Rankin didn’t let me down for a second!
The story sees Rebus re-engaged by Lothian and Border Police in what’s really a cold case unit. At the same time, the disappearance of a young woman, Annette McKie, in Fife, prompts another distraught mother, Nina Hazlitt, to contact the police yet again about her suspicions that this is not a one-off disappearance and is in fact part of a series, which happen along the A9 road, and which began many years before with her own daughter. CID don’t take much notice of her theory for the current case of Annette McKie – but when she tries to contact an officer she knows within the cold case unit, she discovers he is no longer there – and instead she gets, you guessed it….. Rebus! And there are two things that have always characterised Rebus, his nose for a case and his willingness to take on a seemingly lost cause and have a tilt at what others think are Don Quixote-type windmills! It’s not long before Rebus has wormed his way out of cold case unit and into the McKie investigation team, thanks partly to his sidekick of old, Siobhan and thanks partly to the sheer willingness of Rebus to stick his neck out.
I’ll go no further for fear of spoiling it for anyone who might decide to read it (and you should, you really, really, really should!). But it is a great book, one of the best Ian Rankin books in my humble opinion! The characters of Rebus and Siobhan are as strong and vibrant and doggedly real as they ever were – but if anything there’s an additional spice to their relationship now that there is more of a blurred boundary between boss and subordinate! (It’s kind of like in Winnie the Pooh, when Pooh’s surrounded by water, and he decides to try and sail on a honey jar, which he names ‘The Floating Bear’ – AA Milne writes about how for a while “Pooh and The Floating Bear were uncertain as to which of them was supposed to be on top” – well the Siobhan/Rebus relationship is exactly the same – though obviously minus the flood and the honey jar!).
The writing is as good as ever, the pace is great from beginning to end though it never feels rushed and the plot has just enough twists to make it mesmerising but never ridiculous. The previous characters of Malcolm Fox and his “Complaints” team are also there as is the sinister menace that is the gangland hard man Ger Cafferty. In the hands of someone less skilled this could end up feeling like a story with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in – but in Ian Rankin’s hands it’s a carefully balanced set of ingredients, blended together perfectly into an absolutely cracking book. I loved it!
Some comebacks aren’t really that welcome – like “Steps – The Reunion” – I mean why would they bother? It’s not as if anybody would have missed them – surely not!
Some comebacks are just plain silly – like “The Doors” without Jim Morrison. Talk about missing the point!
Some comebacks are welcome and long overdue – like the return of Paul Buchanan from The Blue Nile!
But some comebacks are the stuff of dreams and a cause for celebration – perhaps my most sought after comeback is the return of Eric Cantona to Manchester United – but if I can’t have my idea of heavenly perfection in ‘The Return Of Cantona’, then the byline on the cover of Standing In Another Man’s Grave is the next best thing, for it reads
“REBUS IS BACK!”
And as Shrek says to Donkey – “That’ll do for me Donkey! That’ll do!”
………A couple of weeks ago, the chance discovery that Egmont Publishing are going to issue new Roy Of The Rovers stories through iBooks led me to reminiscing and pondering the link between football and books, the two things I love most (after my beautiful family and the dog of course!)
Now there may be some who think football and literature are incompatible – mutually exclusive even! I disagree. It’s true that the link between good fiction and football is almost non-existent, but I’d suggest Nick Hornby’s brilliant Fever Pitch is enough to prevent a footballing fiction whitewash!
But in non-fiction I can think of several really good books about football I’ve read ( even though I’d have to admit most footballer biographies are rubbish with only the odd exception here and there – in particular, hang your head in shame Graeme Souness and take a bow Roy Keane!)
I’d reckon the audience for a series of full length book reviews of football non-fiction is pretty narrow (and the stats for my blog show I get precious few visits at the best of times!!) So I’m keen to avoid alienating any potential visitor to these pages with weeks of posts about footballing gems like ‘The History of Greenock Morton FC” or “Jack Charlton’s American World Cup Diary”!!!!!!! (Both great reads though – if you are anorak-ish about football and like that sort of thing!)
So as I mentioned in that post about Roy Of The Rovers, I decided to compile a short summary review of the best footballing non-fiction books I’ve read. Here it is then!
TheOnlyWayIsReading Guide To 10 Great Non-Fiction Football Books
1. Left Foot Forward: A Year In The Life Of A Journeyman Footballer by Garry Nelson
Without any doubt the best book by a footballer I’ve ever read. Garry Nelson was a very good footballer, without ever reaching what we might call superstar status. However he played up front for Charlton at a time when they were a good side but perhaps at a time before the potential income for footballers reached the stratospheric proportions of today. His book is a warts-and-all look at the life of the football professional – it comes across as honest and humourous and gives it a much more ordinary, understandable feel. It’s not about fast cars and the jet set lifestyle, it’s about training and injuries and the anxieties of wondering whether or not you’ll make the team and so on. It’s also shot through with a real sadness and uncertainty about the future for it tells the story of what is likely to be Nelson’s last year as a pro before he retires.
It was followed up with an equally good sequel, ‘Left Foot In The Grave’ which picks up the story 18 months later when Garry Nelson takes the thankless and almost impossible task of being player-coach at Torquay United – at that point the bottom club in the whole of the Football League. The two books were bestsellers, and rightly so, for they are a wonderful look at the reality of being a footballer and/or a manager at what you might call the “coal face” of the game – a million miles from the world of Manchester United or Liverpool, but in many ways the heart of the game itself!
2. The Miracle Of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss was a bit of a rarity himself, for he was an American writer and journalist with a deep love and passion for football. On the back of the triumphant hosting of the World Cup in the USA in 94, McGinniss became friends with one of the stars of that American team from 94, Alexei Lalas. Lalas himself had attracted the attention of European club sides because of his displays as a rugged but flamboyant centre-back and had signed for Padua to play in Italy’s Serie A, at that time arguably the best league in the world. McGinniss became intrigued by the story of the team from Castel di Sangro. The small village team in Southern Italy had risen from the lowest levels of amateur football to the unbelievable height of Serie B – one rung on the ladder off playing against some of the greatest players in the world like Maldini, Baresi and Roberto Baggio!
McGinniss spent the year living in the village and charting the exploits of the team and it’s players, administrators, managers and fervent supporters throughout that season at the dizzying heights of Serie B. The book captures the passion and the madness of football brilliantly. Equally when events take a tragic turn, the book is moving and warm and demonstrates the dignity of the people at a time of unimaginable sadness. Throughout, it’s a delight to read. This might not be the best book ever written about football, though in my view it’s up there in the top ten of course, but it’s without doubt the most emotional and romantic story you’ll ever read about football!
3. The Beautiful Team: In Search Of Pele And The 1970 Brazilians by Garry Jenkins
The 1970 Brazilians were perhaps the most brilliant football team ever. Only now are we debating whether or not the current Spanish team may be as good and possibly better – I think the Spanish may well be the best team ever – collectively – but for me nothing will take the place in my heart of the names of Pele, Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao, Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Jairzhino. They won that place in my heart for two reasons – firstly the Mexico World Cup they took by storm was the first time I ever saw colour TV and secondly they played football like I’d never seen it played before! It was powerful, beautiful, graceful and above all joyous. Their fourth goal in the 1970 final will forever by my favourite goal of all time. There’s a flow to it that’s almost balletic!
Garry Jenkins set out in the mid 1990′s to trace every member of that 1970 team and to reminisce and reflect on the team, their role in it, what they’d achieved and what had happened to them since. The journey flows from a Chapter about Pele, interviewed in his then role as Minister for Sport in the Brazilian Government to Felix the eccentric Brazilian goalkeeper, interviewed in the garage where he worked as a mechanic. Through their recollections and opinions you get a strong sense of their togetherness as a group and above all of their confidence in themselves and each other – this was a team of great players and they knew it!
The book is a wonderful journey and more than does justice to the skill and beauty of the 1970 team in yellow and blue that were to change the world of football for ever!
4. Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns
When you live in Scotland, most people make a choice between Rangers and Celtic – even though you may fervently support your local team – as I do with Greenock Morton – there’s still a choice to be made between the two Glasgow Giants! When I went to live in Spain in the mid-eighties I discovered that a similar thing happens there – even though you might support your local team (mine was Tenerife, then in Segunda B but promoted to La Primera the year I left Spain), most people make a choice between Barcelona and Real Madrid. For me the choice was never in doubt – the Catalan history, the role of the club as an anti-Franco force during the Civil War and then under Franco’s rule, and the flamboyance of their players through the years meant that I was instantly attracted to Barcelona and my love of them has never wavered.
Jimmy Burns’ books about football are sharp, incisive and illuminating. I loved his biography of Maradona, but above that is his history of Barca. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so aptly subtitled – “…a people’s passion” and that is exactly what shines through in this book. The book traces the history, the clubs struggles particularly during the Franco years, and some of the great players that graced the Camp Nou down the years and above all, it looks at what the club means to the people who live in Barcelona, who support the team and what the club means to the city itself. If you have any interest in Barca, it’s a wonderful read!
5. My Father And Other Working Class Heroes by Gary Imlach
My partner is from Liverpool and, unfortunately she and all of her family are all mad-keen Liverpool fans – the malaise has spread to my daughter much to my horror and dismay. The exception however is my partner’s father – he’s a blue, and a passionate one. Whenever we’re together we talk three things – politics, football in general and Everton in particular! I bought this book purely on the strength of it being about an Everton player – and uncovered a gem of a book!
Stewart Imlach was a Scotsman who played for Everton in the 50′s and his son Gary tells his father’s story which was so typical of other working class men at that time, who entered the world of professional football before the pots of gold were placed at the ends of rainbows by people like Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour.
It’s a wonderful and moving tribute to his father, detailing the joys, challenges and uncertainties of life as a footballer, and for a footballers family, in those years after the war. The cavalier attitude of clubs towards their players is difficult to comprehend when we read it today with player-power at its height. The slave-like conditions of contract they faced makes you realise that, for all the talk now of the obscene salaries earned by some top players, the moves to gain freedom of contract and the abolition of the maximum wage in football were huge victories for football and for the people who played it and watched it, for no more was the game a mechanism for lining the pockets of rich men exploiting the players and the people who paid to watch them!
This makes it sound like a revolutionary manifesto – it isn’t – Gary Imlach tells his fathers’ story with honesty but it’s never overly sentimental. What’s great about this book is that it never loses sight of the fact that at the time his father was still luckier than most working class people. Stewart Imlach comes across as a hard-working, decent, thoughtful man – and according to my partners Dad, who remembers him with huge affection, he was a bloody good footballer too!
6. Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff: The ABC Of An Obstinate Maestro by Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp
Aristotle said “There was never a genius, without a tincture of madness!”. While ‘madness’ might be overstating it a bit, what comes across in Barend and Dorp’s book about the mercurial and magnificent Johann Cruyff are all the unusual and slightly different parts of his personality – I guess it’s the price to pay for having the gift that Cruff had.
The book is a slightly unusual read as it was put together from a huge number of interviews and articles which Barend and Van Dorp had conducted with Cruyff over a period of 23 years!!!! The book came out in Holland to mark the occasion of Cruyff’s fiftieth birthday. He is of course such a huge figure in Dutch football that there were several books which came out to mark the occasion – this was the only one that had Cruyff’s blessing and indeed he wrote the foreward himself. With his involvement and approval you’d understandbly be forgiven for thinking that this will be one of those white-washed football biographies that are trotted out continually – but it isn’t. Some of the articles are incisive, the questioning is sharp and to the point, and they draw out Cruyff, faults and all. I loved this book. I loved Cruyff. I’d watched enthralled as a kid when he lit up football, first with Ajax, then the Dutch team in 1974, and then at Barca. I was lucky enough to live in Spain at the same time as Cruyff was developing the “golden era” at Barca in his role as manager – it was a joy to watch him play, a joy to watch the team he managed and a joy to read this book!
7. Garrincha – The Triumph And Tragedy Of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero by Ruy Castro
If Aristotles words about genius and madness could be argued to apply to Cruyff, there’s no doubt at all that they could be applied to Garrincha. This is perhaps the most tragic and sad of all the football books I’ve read so far. The similarity of the talents shown by Garrincha and Pele is in sharp contrast to the lives they led – Pele the statesman-like great footballer, revered in his country and around the world, Garrincha, drunk and virtually penniless, who died tragically at 49.
The book mixes together the ingredients that made Garrincha such an unlikely but wonderful footballer along with the ingredients in his personality that caused him to lead a life outside the game that seemed almost hell-bent on self – destruction. It never over-romanticises Garrincha and yet it’s clear that for all his faults, everyone who came into contact with him liked him and admired him. As I read it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Garrincha and Paul Gascoigne. There’s something about both of their cavalier, unpredicable, approaches on the pitch that spills over into their lives. Reading Garrincha’s story you get the sense of a man whose personality on the pitch made him the genius he was as a footballer but that same personality also made him a wild and tortured soul as a man. It’s a desperately sad story, beautifully and loving told by Ruy Castro and by everyone who seems to have come under Garrincha’s spell.
8. The Bootsy Egan Letters by Colin Ward
This book is hilariously funny. It’s a spoof by the journalist, Colin Ward, who wrote a series of outrageous letters to footballers and football managers and then collected those letters and their replies in this wonderful book! The letters probe at their motives, their attitudes, their wealth and in some cases, their morals! What’s great about them is that they are sharp and clever and very witty and often their humour is enhanced by replies from the great and the good of the footballing world who are split into different camps – those who are outraged and indignant, those who are disinterested and send the blandest of replies, and those who either see through the ruse or rise to the challenge and respond with humourous letters of their own! My personal favourites were his correspondence with Sir Alex, Howard Wilkinson, and his wonderful spats with the then FA Chief exec Graham Kelly!
A work of genius!
9. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football by David Winner
Dutch football has become a byword for technique, passing and movement, skill, and invention. Yet it wasn’t always this way. “Total Football” as it was known was born in the 60′s, driven by Rinus Michels in particular and was brought to the worlds attention by the Cruyff – inspired Ajax and Dutch teams of the mid to late 1970′s. The book charts not only some of the history of Dutch football but also how the idea of Dutch football developed and took shape over a number of years. In some ways it’s a book about Holland and the Dutch and from there how that’s influenced, and been influenced by, Dutch football. And of course, along the way there’s a roll call of the great and the good of Dutch football – all players I’ve loved and admired, Cruyff himself, Johann Neeskens (my favourite player as a boy!), Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullitt, Johnny Rep, Robbie Resenbrink, Wim Van Hanegem, Ruud Krol …..I could go on and on but suffice to say this was a pleasure to read about one of my favourite things in the world!
10. Cantona by Rob Wightman
Eric. The one and only Eric.
There have been several books about him and I think I’ve read all of them. But this is the one I enjoyed most. It’s a comprehensive narrative in terms of its breadth and detail about Eric’s career, especially with Manchester United. It’s not only well researched on the facts, it’s been well-researched into Eric’s relationships and attitudes, into what others thought of Eric’s contribution and into Eric’s impact, again particularly at United. It recounts the turbulent and the difficult times for Eric and those of us who took him to our hearts, especially the incident and aftermath at Crystal Palace. It doesn’t spare Eric in its laying out of the facts around this and other incidents, but thankfully it avoids the moralising and sanctimonious nonsense that infects some of the other books about Eric.
It’s a book that does justice to a legend in every sense. You know a player is special when fans still songs in praise of him – and it’s 15 years since Eric left Man Utd! – but to this day you won’t get through a Utd game without hearing “”Ooh Ah Cantona” or “The Twelve Days Of Eric”!! For me a book is special when I re-read it – and although I admit to quite a large helping of bias when it comes to anything Eric, I’ve re-read this several times and will read it again no doubt!
I love football and I love books about football – sadly there aren’t that many good ones. But there are some, whether histories of teams, biographies of the well-known and the not-so-well known, and books that celebrate and understand what makes the game or a player that bit special. And none are for me more special than Eric, so no football book is more special for me than Rob Wightman’s straightforward honest assessment of a genius! The last word goes to Rob Wightman and by implication of course it goes to Eric – why wouldn’t it!!!!
“And then there was Cantona.
Quite simply he was the magic ingredient,
the extra element that transformed a good team into a brilliant one…….”
A while ago, while visiting a zoo or a theme park or somewhere, my daughter bought a packet of paper tissues with £50 notes printed on them (like most kids our best efforts to educate and introduce her to culture, heritage and nature founder on the inevitable truth – what she’s really interested in is going to the shop!)
This morning she decided to take them to school and share with her friends in the playground! All well and good. But she then broke the sleepy ease and soothing silence of our school run with the following statement “Some rich people use real £50 notes to blow their nose you know!”. She then went on to regale me with the details of how they will use a handkerchief if they have one but if they haven’t they just go into their wallet (it’s always men who display this decadence never women – I think she believes that even fabulously wealthy women have some sense!) and then they take out a £50 note and wipe their nose with it! To this tall tale she then added slander by stating that she knew Simon Cowell did it. When I asked her where she heard this and how she knew this was true she told me “It was on the internet!”
This got me thinking about three things
1. I’m thinking of writing a novel and currently gathering ideas (I’ve shared the basic plot with my daughter – her constructive and practical criticism was “Sounds boring!”). I’m inclined to use this information about the filthy rich and their nose blowing techniques for one of the characters! In addition I think I’ll litter the text with odd and a-typical uses of £50 notes!
2. If Simon Cowell and the filthy rich do this in real life (I’m sure they don’t, although the evidence that “It was on the Internet so it must be true” is powerful stuff!!!) then I’d dislike it intensely - I’m too plain to like anything ostentatious or bizarre in real people! But in books – that’s a different matter! It struck me that instead of being put off by outrageous behaviour such as this in book characters I tend to rather like them for it. I loved Cameron Colley in Iain Banks’ “Complicity” sitting behind the wheel of his car driving with no hands at 100 miles an hour while rolling a joint on his knee – I admired the sheer chutzpah of Don Emmanuel washing the fluff from his genitals in the stream in Louis De Bernieres “The War Of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” – has there ever been a more charming and likeable asocial serial murderer than Sebastian Faulks’ “Mike Engleby” – and on the nose side of things my favourite book character ever, Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, was in part at least, a glorious evocation of all things snot!
I wondered if I only like the outrageous side of life on the page rather than real life – but that can’t be true because I really didn’t like Bernie Salazar in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad” (mind you I didn’t like anybody or anything about that book!) and in real life I love Eric Cantona!
3. I worry like hell for my daughter and her generation and those to follow – we seem to be making a right bloody mess of the world we live in and which they’ll inherit – but my worry increases a little further when I realise that at the moment she thinks if it’s on the Internet it must be true! If that was the case then Nicholas Cage really might be a vampire, Steve Jobs may well have been a ninja warrior and the Seven Dwarves really were a metaphor for the different stages of cocaine addiction! (This garbage and much more is out there – why aren’t there warm and comforting rumours on the internet like “God sends a message to Earth that Scotland will qualify for and win the next World Cup”!). But, more than anything, if what is on the Internet really is all true then it would also mean the most ludicrous thing of all was true and that I’ll never accept, so I’ll end my post by stating it clearly – Katie Price is NOTa proper author and as far as I am concerned never could be and never will be!!!
Now excuse me while I go blow my nose – where have I left my wallet……………………………………!
“I claim there ain’t / Another Saint / As great as Valentine!” wrote Ogden Nash. These days I think Valentine might be less than keen on the rampant commercialism of this celebration and demonstration of love in his name – I saw cards yesterday inscribed “Happy Valentines Day to Our Son”!!! What’s that about?
I started my Valentines Day early this morning reading Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poetry in Human Chain and went back again to my favourite poem in the collection, Route 101, in which Heaney traces his journey through life in a series of moments laid over Virgil’s Aeneid and the move to the underworld. But it was the fantastic beginning which brought me to remember my first love – books!
Heaney’s poem begins with this scene of him buying a book as an adolescent “In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle / Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”. If anything captures the beauty and the preciousness in the hum-drum, everyday, ordinariness of buying a book, then this is it for me.
Book love began at first sight in Bawhirely Road library in Greenock where I grew up. In my memories it is the most beautiful, the most grand and the most imposing of buildings! In reality it’s not any of those things as you can see!!
But to my seven-year-old eyes it was a rite of passage becoming a member – but nothing on the exterior prepared me for falling instantly in love with row upon row of books, most spine out but some with that tantalising “come and try me” look as they were displayed front on. The counter was solid and smelt of varnish, but it had a crenellated section for kids – it was hewn I think rather than cut – a bit more heavy axe than refined jigsaw had created I’d guess! I’d linger and dally over choosing so long I’d frequently be “encouraged” to choose and get out with the words “If you don’t get a move on you’ll be sleeping here!”. And I’d have loved to! And years later I did finally sleep with books – I was the Headteacher of a school in Essex when the local library tried to promote books by running a sleepover in the library – I immediately signed up and it was great – I still feel warmed by the memory of sliding into my sleeping bag surrounded by words!
And in the same way that I can reflect back over the years of being in love with my beautiful partner, I can also reflect on moments in my love affair with books, reading and stories. I remember the joy of getting a multiple book library ticket, staying up all night for the first time to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo”, being asked to leave a bookshop after collapsing into an uncontrollable fit of giggling on reading the blurb on the back of Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall!”, discovering the world of Arthur and the Round Table emerging with my favourite hero of all time Sir Gawain, (even more than Eric Cantona and Guy Garvey from Elbow), waiting with endless plays of Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in the background on my O Level / GCSE results and yet being more worried about Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace than the results, sitting as a hitch-hiking student by a flea-ridden hotel pool in Greece crying with laughter at the antics of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and then 25 years later crying by the edge of a stunningly beautiful hotel pool in Greece at the end of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel Game” (I’d come a long way in hotel quality but the story quality had been constant throughout!) and re-discovering the majestic Simon Armitage version of Gawain and The Green Knight! These and many more have filled so many minutes, hours and days for me over the years – but today I was grateful to Seamus Heaney for reminding me that my book journey began in that library 43 years ago!
If you’d like to share the moments that mark your book journey I’d love to hear what they are!
From the start I should state – I think Big Brother is awful – in all its forms! But I’ve seen it – how could I avoid it living in a house where my family love reality shows and “dramality”!!! (In case you don’t know “dramality” is apparent a reality show which is actually made up and isn’t reality at all – I hope you are keeping up here!). One of the things I hate most about it is the intrusion it allows into the lives of some people who don’t seem, well very nice really! And even worse it seems to me that it increasingly sets out to exploit and magnify any mental health issues that an individual faces – any time I walk through the room when it’s on there is one celebrity crying, one celebrity shouting, and all the others are split into two camps supporting either Crying Celebrity or Shouting Celebrity! But what the hell has Celebrity Big Brother got to do with books you may ask (that’s a hint – if you aren’t asking that you should be – it’s a sort of “stage direction!”)
I come to it from reading my current book “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry, set in India at the time Mrs Gandhi declared a state of emergency. The book is wonderful – but she’s just the most god-awful creature it seems to me. The book is beautiful to read and it’s somehow very calm and understated – and yet almost each time I put it down I’m consumed with rage at the treatment of the main characters! At from there that got me thinking about how some books have exposed some well-known names and faces to a kind of “literary” Big Brother scrutiny for me – which they’ve not come out of well!
Inevitably, as they are meant to, good biographies, and sometimes fiction, can be a such a thoroughly transparent window to a sportsman or politician or celebrity, showing you more than you could ever have glimpsed or even thought existed when you watched them perform or talk or play (or in the case of politicians maybe the most apt phrase is “watched them bullshit!”). It seems to me this can be really quite negative characteristics and yet it feels absolutely right – in everything I’ve ever read about Eric Cantona for instance he comes across with a swaggering arrogance and supreme self-confidence – and that’s as it should be for me as I want Eric to be arrogant and supremely confident – I’d feel cheated somehow if he was anything less! However sometimes books show you negative things that clash so violently with my perceptions, they alter my perspective entirely.
Years ago I read Bob Geldof’s book “Is That It?”. I so wanted to enjoy it, like it and like him. But I hated it. I expected him to come across as dogged and unorthodox and challenging and with a swagger because like almost everybody else I was so impressed by what he’d done with “Live Aid!”. But I found the book sickeningly self-congratulatory and somehow a bit “Oh wow is me and look what I’ve achieved against all the odds etc, etc, etc”. It didn’t put me off Bob mind you – I bought albums by Bob Geldof and The Vegetarians of Love and I doubt there are many people who can say that!! Anyway for me – on a literary Celebrity Big Brother, Bob’s autobiography would be one of those in there to gather the unpopular vote!
Where I work, a book group started up at one point and among the first books suggested was a book about Gandhi – I think it was called “All Men Are Brothers!”. It turned out to be the worst experience of my reading life – it was truly the most awful book I’ve ever read. It’s essentially a collection of Gandhi sayings and quotes and comments on everything in life from the big ideas to the everyday minutiae! But beyond being an awful read, it showed me a side of Gandhi that I had known nothing about (admittedly most of my perception had been gathered via history in school and watching Richard Attenborough’s film!). But I found myself intensely disliking Gandhi – not in terms of what he did on behalf of India but for his attitudes and what seemed to me often small-mindedness in relation to things like his wife and women in general. So, if there was a literary Celebrity Big Brother I think Gandhi’s book would create the biggest shock for the watching millions and he’d be my tip for the one who goes into the “house” as the most popular public figure and who comes out of the house to the odd boo and catcalls!
By contrast the celebrity whose book would go in a villain and then emerge as much more likeable than I’d expected would be the late politician Alan Clark. I dislike his politics and again his attitudes to things like his wife and women – yet I really enjoyed reading the Alan Clark Diaries – so much so I’ve read them twice!
But who would win a literary Celebrity Big Brother biography contest for me – well it would be no contest – Eric Cantona by a mile!