Simon Cowell, the “filthy” rich and fifty pound notes……………………………..

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 NOT a 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……………………………………!

What I Thought Of……….A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

I’m a “Johnny Come Lately” to this magnificent novel which was nominated for the Booker in 1996. I’d never heard of it until I saw a book programme on TV, on which the Scottish TV and radio presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli spoke about it with such passion and love – consequently I bought it on the strength of that and I owe him such a debt of gratitude for otherwise I’d have missed this wonderful novel.

It tells the story of a group of four people whose lives become connected and inter-linked in the midst of the “Emergency” declared by Mrs Gandhi in India in the 70’s. Their everyday lives and experiences are twisted and shaped by the political crisis in their country and in particular the madnesses of the government in dealing with the political situation. Om and Ishvar are tailors working for and connected to Dina Dilal, a widow trying to make a living, which includes offering lodging to the final main character, the student Maneck.

The book is exceptionally well written. There is real tragedy and poverty and despair in some of the book and in the lives of the characters yet it’s never sentimental or over-powering. The characters were so well crafted that I cared passionately about each of them – I found that I really did feel very high and low they experienced. There’s such poverty in their lives but that’s in the material sense – their values and beliefs and hopes and fears give their lives such richness at the same time as the poverty in which some of them find themselves.

What I Thought Of……….The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink

The story follows the events of one weekend as a group of friends and ex-colleagues are gathered for a reunion of sorts when the central character, a terrorist, Jorg, is released from prison on a Presidential pardon for his crimes of murder. There are clear parallels with the reign of violence from Baader – Meinhof in Germany in the 70’s. I think this is difficult territory for a novel – it could easily become hackneyed nonsense and stray into the thriller/anti-hero territory, but Bernhard Schlink handles the subject matter brilliantly. The characters are numerous and while all inter-connected they are also varied enough to be real and the main characters of Jorg, Christiane, Margarete, Henner, Ulrich, Karin and Andreas are all complex, interesting, and human enough to make you warm to them despite their flaws. The only character I struggled with was Marko –   he read like a cliché for every banal left-wing revolutionary sentiment ever uttered – but maybe that’s how Schlink intended him to be. The events of the weekend are a combination of reflections on the past and the tensions and the interactions between them, which are told well so that the story moves at a good pace but never feels rushed. The novel very effectively explores Jorgs actions and his beliefs, values and attitudes by finding mechanisms to make him consider and in some senses face up to his past, which add to the plot but do it in a way which avoid being overly sentimental and not in the least sensationalist. It’s this really effective handling of the difficult topic of terrorists and their actions and consequences that makes it such a good book. Jorg is a monster on one level, but the book is so well written that he quickly emerges as very much that monster his actions and words portray, but yet also so much more. I admired the way the novel avoided any real attempt to describe the “actions” / deeds of Jorg and his fellow terrorists and focused instead on motivation and justification and reflection on it over time – it made it a much more powerful novel for that. However the connection he made between one of the “missing” characters, Jan, and the September 11 atrocities was really well written and very believable.

I read the higher profile Schlink novel “The Reader” a few years ago and loved it – again in part for his mastery of an incredibly difficult topic (that time it was war crimes) and while The Weekend isn’t quite in the league of its illustrious predecessor, it’s still a terrific novel and as it’s a short (just over 200 pages) and easy read, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Love At First Sight In A Greenock Library

“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!

What I Thought Of……….The Canterbury Tales, A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

This re-telling of the Canterbury Tales is a really good read. I’d suffered rather than enjoyed abridged versions of Chaucer’s tales during English Lit in school where the focus was all on the “old English” – which I found very dull and I now realise missed the heart of the book – the fact that Chaucer was a really great storyteller! Some of the tales are thoughtful, some adventurous, some funny and some are simply vulgar and explicit – but in a very bawdy and humorous way. Consequently I didn’t find it offensive in the least though I can see some people might. My favourite was The Merchants Tale – I found it a brilliant slapstick sexual comedy! There are a lot of references to mythology throughout the tales but for me this only added to the stories as I find that fascinating. Overall I really enjoyed reading this – if I’d been able to read this as a 16-year-old I might have been more motivated towards English Lit in school!

What I Thought Of……….A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Having read reviews, hype, and the fact it won the Pulitzer I really expected great things – but I just didn’t get it. I can see that it’s cleverly written but for me it was soulless and too detached. I couldn’t have cared less about any of the characters and what happened to them – in fact I didn’t really like any of them – they were all just really irritating and irrelevant to me. Even the really clever idea of a chapter told in PowerPoint slides left me cold despite the pathos in the subject matter – like the rest if the book it didn’t touch me – it just felt like someone demonstrating how clever they were – and im sure Jennifer Egan is really talented – but it didn’t work for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed in a book – perhaps that was part of the problem for me that I’d expected so much and it delivered so little!

Intellectualism and The Cycling Proficiency Test!

I was sitting at my desk doing a post for this blog and listening to Stuart Maconie on Radio 6 Music when he commented in relation to a caller that “You’re an intellectual on this programme if you’ve passed the cycling proficiency test!”

I was horrified – because I didn’t pass – mind you I didn’t fail either! They kindly picked the remains of my bike out from under the car I drove it into during the test and helped me limp and squeak my way back to the school – they didn’t actually say the words “You’ve failed!” but they didn’t give me one of those little metal plaques with the cycling proficiency triangle to affix to the frame of my mangled bike either!!! For years afterwards I was scarred by that experience – as well as focused constantly on trying to nick a badge from someone else’s bike to add to mine – I wasn’t proud in those days and it was the kudos of having the badge that mattered to me! However I got over it!

But Stuart’s comment makes me realise that it had much further reaching implications than I’d realised at the time – I thought it only ruined my chances of getting a girlfriend and condemned me to a life of public transport too humiliated to put foot to pedal ever again! Now I realise that it is the reason why I never became the intellectual I’d hoped to be as an adolescent (and even mistakenly thought I might be, when at university I managed to acquire a second-hand Afghan coat – surely the early 80’s badge of intellectuals everywhere!!!!).

I guess I’m doomed never to be an intellectual – unless of course the 10 metre swimming badge or the Tufty Club Road Safety Badge were also “intellectual” qualifying tests!

What I Thought Of………..Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

As well as being a really good story, Snowdrops is also a fascinating picture of life in Moscow. The portrayal of the city is of somewhere edgy, outrageous and garish and yet there’s something fascinating and attractive about it. The characters of Nick and Masha and Katya are all interesting and I warmed to each of them. Each of them is flawed in some way but the flaws sit well – they fit the characters – and as a result it makes them more real and believable. The movement of the story to the conclusion is well done – I found I ripping along building a real tension. The most interesting thing for me was the book wasn’t quite what I expected. I’d imagined I’d be reading a story with a complex interweaving plot full of unexpected twists and turns. Although the plot is good it isn’t one of those “you didn’t see that coming” stories with a twist on every page. I thought the strength of the book was in how well it’s written and the way he draws you into the characters, Moscow as a place and Moscow as a lifestyle. Overall, I really enjoyed it.

What I Thought Of………….The Sea by John Banville

I’d never read anything by John Banville before but after reading The Sea I’m looking forward to reading more of his books.  The story of Max looking back at a childhood memory and experience by the seaside is beautifully told. The sentences are wonderful – it feels as if he’s put time, thought and care into every single one of his sentences. Sometimes the vocabulary was a real stretch for me – it certainly opened up a lot of words I’d never heard of before – and I suspect some that John  Banville just made up – and when you can write as fantastically as he can why shouldn’t you shape and fashion new words. I’ve still no idea what ‘cracaleured’ means!!!!! – but its a great word anyway. The relationships between the characters and between past and present are woven into an enjoyable narrative but it’s the poetry in the way each sentence is constructed that I loved most and that made this for me a wonderful read. I now know he’s written many other novels and I’ll hope to read them all on the strength of ‘The Sea’ – and maybe by then I’ll have discovered the meaning of ‘cracaleured’!!!!!!!

What I Thought Of…….Soldiers Of Salamis by Javier Cercas

This was a joy to read and a real discovery for me. A friend gave me “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” as a gift for my fiftieth birthday – since then I’ve used it to read things I wouldn’t otherwise have tried – and this book was worth it alone.

The story centres around the mercy shown to a leading Falangist by a Republican soldier during the Spanish Civil War as the Falangist leader Sanchez Machas flees from an execution. It is a great story, moving back and forward in time with real ease, and linking the past with the present. The perspective of the author in the book is really cleverly done – Cercas essentially inserts himself into the novel as character in his own right – including the involvement of the Chilean author Roberto Bolano – it’s an inspired idea and it really worked for me The ending of the book is perfect in my view – I found it moving and hopeful and yet also so sad all at the same time. I’ll certainly read more by Cercas and also more about this period in history. If I read all of the 1001 books then I reckon I’ve got about 900 to go – but if I can uncover another gem like this book it will be more than worthwhile