‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke’

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Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

by Viv Albertine

I don’t read many biographies to be truthful. I don’t know why really. In the book club, biographies are frowned upon as a lesser form of writing, quite why I don’t know, it’s on of our many weird rules: no biographies. On the QT, I like a bit of historical bio action and in the past I’ve voraciously consumed weighty tomes on Churchill, Hitler, Julian Cope and Humphrey Bogart to name a few randoms. In truth I don’t remember much about them and perhaps that’s the curse of the biography: ephemeral in many ways.

So when I was handed a copy of Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys I thought I’d slip it in between ‘serious’ book club books for a little light relief. The title comes from what her mum accurately surmised as her primary interests when she was younger, and sets the tone for a bright and honest journey from seventies London, being in a punk band and to be honest, an ordinary woman’s life with no holds barred. The opening chapter coverers in detail her lack of interest in masturbation this honesty sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The first half of the book is a solidly engaging and innocent romp through London seen through a teenager’s eyes: the beginning of punk, it’s magnesium-bright pinnacle and its inevitable fizzling out. As someone who was too young to catch the first wave of punk, this is a breathlessly enjoyable sequence that shines alight on the surprisingly random and quite frankly coincidental series of events that led to the watershed in music that was punk. Just after punk in the early eighties, we all imagined it was some kind of co-ordniated movement to dethrone the establishment, but it was just a bunch of disaffected kids who were in the right place at the right time—with wrong kind of attitude.

Viv’s voice is clear and distinctive. She confesses to the reader all manner of surprising feelings centred on inadequacy and fear which is refreshing when punk was all about conveying an attitude with a look. For her the veneer and sneer of sexualised punk was just that, a front but it gave her the permission to be different. But we’re in good hands with Viv throughout and she never fails to convince even when she makes some quite frankly crazy decisions. I can completely identify with the attitude that lead to her embrace punk is such a passionate way: we were post war kids and we were part of a new generation that felt the old ways had had it and it was in with the new. I even felt the reverberations of that in post punk—new wave took a sanitised version of punk and ran with it, leather keks and all.

The second half of the book is where it gets really interesting for me. After she leaves The Slits her life opens up in front of her and she realises that she has to do something with it. Her story then becomes one of education, families, relationships ending, illness and some successes. In short, the normal life of any woman. Viv is always true to herself though and the bravery (and innocence) that led her as a 14 year old to travel to Amsterdam and live in a squat manifests itself in all kinds of situations in her life. But she is always true to herself—eventually—whether it is music or relationships.

So this is no light relief biographical sideshow, it’s a moving and engaging story of an extraordinary life and an ordinary life, meshed together.

Geek Love by Catherine Dunne

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There is something unsettling about a carnival, a freakshow.

Even in my relatively mundane West Yorkshire childhood, there was always something cool about when the ‘feast’ came to town. The feasties were travellers of dubious character and to be avoided. Of course there weren’t any freaks on show (most of them were the customers) but even then it was exciting and out of our usual experience, perhaps even a little bit dangerous.

I recently read and hugely enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes, centred around a supernatural carnival that visits fifties mid west towns, seducing people, stealing souls. I think the travelling circus or carnival or midway or even a plain old carnie feast plays to our fear, excitement and ultimately fascination of the outsider. Our dull lives are shown to be lacking but for the fleeting visit of thrills and scares.

Geek Love takes the idea of a freak show and cranks it up to eleven with in your face thrills and chills. Dunn takes the perverse idea of biological manipulation to create the ultimate family of weirdos, each sibling taking the freak factor to the next level — I saw parallels with Nazi Germany playing God with human experimentation, as Al tried a new concoction of drugs on Lil to see if he could create the next headline act. In fact if there was a modern incarnation of this travelling circus of unease it would definitely have some kind of ‘Freak Factor’ feature with a Simon Cowell-esque take on what it really takes to be the top of the freaks.

Dunne carefully reveals the family in all its glorious physicality with eye-popping detailed description. There was no doubt in my mind who looked like what and how they all came about – well frankly it was absurd, comedic and actually very dark, at times disturbing: a trippy cross between the Addams Family, The Partridge Family and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The author built the characters so solidly that we cared about the outcomes and the complexity of this ultimate dysfunctional family. The early days of the family cutely telling stories by the fire like a twisted Little House on the Prairie or better still, The Waltons, is in stark contrast to the empire of dirt they ultimately, unintentionally create.

As I write, the characters come tumbling onto the page and it’s at times like these that I’d be riffing on the family…Arty, the twins, Oly, Chick and how much Dunne made me care about what happened and what helped me make sense of the ending of the book. The crazy characters we meet along the way add a lush depth to the storytelling too, detailed case studies of oddness and weirdness, all looking pretty normal against the Binewski backdrop.

The book reminded me of an amphetamine-fuelled take on John Irvine, perhaps crossed with Tim Burton on acid. It’s bizarre, surreal and quite electric. All credit to Dunn though as we take each increasing level of disturbing activity in our collective stride. From the pinnacle of Arturism, a kind of amputee Moonie division to Miss Lick’s reverse plastic surgery, we were relentlessly pounded with outrageous themes that dared us to read on…

Yes, at times it was disturbing. And yes, at times I was properly shocked and had to close my mouth at the sheer oddness of it all.

But the language was unflinching and felt accurate, visceral, direct, the sledgehammer prose at times delivering knockout blows…but tender when it needed to be and patient when painting the picture.

Ultimately for me it’s a book about fitting in, examining what we mean about being normal and what it means to be an outsider. As a kid all I ever wanted to do was fit in — I was embarrassed by anything that made me stand out: my mum being too fat, our house looking too poor, and wearing the wrong type of parka (yeah…really). Central themes of surgically altering body shapes to look unattractive and biologically altering bodies to make them more entertaining are pretty hardcore and amongst the most challenging we’ve read.

But Dunne takes us on a journey that is moves at a clip (unpretentiously super easy to read), breezily taking us on a macabre road trip through the darkest heartland of America, holding up a mirror to my own ideas about self esteem, image, delighting in shocking my sensibilities but at the same time seducing me into feeling that really this is just a normal tale, about normal folk. Perhaps it’s me that’s weird??

The ending is like an episode from Tales from the Unexpected (as I suppose the whole Miss Lick exercise is, but no matter) and rather unsatisfyingly for me, Oly’s daughter never gets to know she is her mother.

But Dunn is merciless, and she was always going to be brutal with her ending of Oly’s life as she was with the Fabulon burning to the ground with all destroyed, burnt to a crisp and Arty cooked to a turn.

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Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

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Over on Into the Orchard, fellow book club member Ian Street has done a wonderful job of describing the magical combination of people, place, book, weather and location that makes up our annual book club trip. Take a look… Barcelona and the Boys Book Club.

The man who was Thursday

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Four out of ten

This month’s book club book was very strange. It was by the relatively well-known British author, G K Chesterton. I have no idea how it came about as I wasn’t in attendance last month…but here goes.

It’s worth up front saying that finishing this book was a bit of a challenge: I left my hard copy in a Leeds hotel room – accidentally I might add —but downloaded e-book at the last-minute to finish it. And for some reason it was easier to finish it in a digital format: go figure. I found the book hard graft initially to get into, a difficult book to read for some reason; perhaps it was the language, not sure. Once into it though, the pages turned easily and I finished it with hours to spare, pre book club…even though I wasn’t actually there in person.

First thing to say is that this is a completely mental book. Farcical at every turn, it was almost like an episode of Ripping Yarns with some chapters full on Python-esque thrown in for good measure. It had elements of the surreal; reminding me of a Magritte show I saw in Liverpool a couple of years ago. Bowler hats, steam trains, apples, you get the picture. It also felt satirical but I’m not really sure what about, but more on that later. I also enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of London and skies were very visual and quite lyrical, quite at odds with the rest of the book.

The plot was ludicrous, every move telegraphed at every chapter and certainly to the modern reader it seemed quite eccentric. It was both funny and engaging sporadically and ridiculously old-fashioned. Parts are very Dickensian with echoes of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (perhaps it’s the period) and interesting to note Chesterton had a Dickensian obsession himself, writing a biography of Dickens. As in most Dickens books, London plays a starring role and this book has the city central to the action.

I particularly liked a proto James Bond underground bunker / secret agent entrance to a secret lair —Ian Fleming had clearly read this book as did many Cold War / TV writers…for example the Man from Uncle secret entrance through the laundry business mimicked the grimy boozer tunnel described in the book. At times this book felt quite futuristic for the period it was written.

The final chapter in the book had an otherworldly, almost supernatural feel that had echoes for me of the Master and Margarita party chapter — praise indeed. It was both surreal and druggy. There were also religious references aplenty, both overt and tucked away. From the Old Testament days of creation to Jesus’ quote about having to drink from his cup, I found the collision of religion and anarchy a bit obvious.

It was interesting to think about modern terrorism in the context of the anarchists depcted in this book, would Al Qaeda sympathisers be ignored in the manner of these pseudo terrorists? imagine a similar gathering in a curry house in Bradford talking of bombings…All one has to do these days is say the word bomb or type in the word dynamite to a search engine and alarm bells are triggered.

I then got thinking about ‘hiding in plain view’ and of course it has modern-day resonance…Jimmy Saville, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Cyril Smith, all hiding in plain view using their stature, celebrity, and wealth to conceal their activities. Quite a powerful thought.

I found the anarchists not very anarchistic and to be honest, wasn’t really sure what they were rebelling against. I was puzzled with their quaint club style (more rules it seems than our own book club it seemed) and I wanted to know why were anarchists so prominent in 1908 and what worried that society so? Was it the Russian movement, the build up to WW1 or was it the fragile transition from Victorian old world culture to brave new world of technology and advancement?

Fundamentally I’m left unsure why the intellectuals were seeking to embrace the destruction of society and establishment. Interesting to see in our modern era it seems to me like it’s not esoteric intellectuals who seek the destruction of society as we know it, but religious fundamentalists.

I scored the book a four as for the majority of the book it was simply a farce with clunky exposition, enjoyable to read but the real nuggets were few and far between.

 

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

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This year has been another classic year for our book club. As we get to the end of the year, we always take a backwards glance at the year’s books in our annual review and it’s always a delight to go back over the reading material and re-appraise the books—time often provides another filter in which to consider their impact.

We have read some really challenging and stimulating books this year in book club and none more so than the latest: a slim collection of short stories by Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. I’ve said many times before, the measure of a great book club book is the conversation it stimulates, the book itself doesn’t have to be amazing: in fact if it is, it’s usually high scores all round and a fairly dull meeting ensues.

I think we’ve only read short stories before on one occasion (Sci Fi as I recall) and we knew we were in safe short story hands with Munro, given her recent Nobel accolade for her literature. Awards are no guarantee of a satisfying book and discussion as we’ve found in the past, but the book ticked a lot of boxes, so in we went.

This book was easy to read, although I found short stories need to be consumed in one sitting, otherwise the characters in different story fuse together. In fact looking back, I feel the themes were far more important across the collection than the characters. Good short stories are impressive feats of writing too—a compelling and believable world has to be created quickly and efficiently with no luxury of 800 pages to flesh it out.

Munro examines the trajectories of lives, criss-crossing, delicately woven together, smashed part, unfolding, unravelling. She tackles the difficult issues of the bargains we make with ourselves to make things work or rationalise in our hearts and heads. She enjoys the untidy nature of life which, as much as we try to keep it in order, can never be mastered. She is a master at portraying the complexity of emotions, the fragility of relationships, unbreakable family ties, duty and responsibility. Furniture is a theme that re-occurs constantly, an analogy I think for the everyday stuff that surrounds us in our lives, physical things that we can move around but never goes away.

The men in her book are hard, unattainable, dutiful, arms length objects of female desire to be lusted after or fearful of. The women are trapped, hemmed in by their duty and loyalty, occupying traditional stereotypes that perhaps speaks more of her Canadian home.

Her prose is like a delicate filigree, beautifully realising the relentlessly chilly tales. I found many of the stories bereft of emotion, Munro doesn’t flinch from the harshness of life and relationships, as the reader, one gets cold comfort from her elegant, neatly realised writing.

This collection is ultimately a mediation on morality and mortality—each story prodding, poking, picking at the edges of life. There aren’t many answers to be found in her pages, she simply sets out the scenes and asks the reader to decide. As each story unfolds, Munro seems to get bolder, finishing with the powerful Bear came over the mountain, laying out the components of loss: memory, relationships, tragedy and mundanity.

Of course a collection of stories like this got us all hot under the collar and a seriously good discussion ensued. I scored the book highly as this is clearly the work of a great writer and writing this, three weeks after we met, the themes have matured and lurk in the back of my mind, gloomily reminding me that it’s a fine line between happiness and sadness. And it’s a line that we all tread daily.

Something wicked

When I go on holiday I usually take along a stack of books to read. I know you Kindle types will be laughing at my old fangled ways with paper and ink, but I do prefer a physical book at certain times even if it does play havoc with my baggage allowance. There’s something about the tactile nature of reading a paper based novel and the way that the glue melts in extreme temperatures and all the pages fall out…I digress.

Amongst my recent stash of holiday readage I took a couple of companion pieces. Or at least that’s what I discovered after I read them because when I bought them I had no idea they would be beautiful to read on after the other. The first was Neil Gaman’s latest The ocean at the end of the lane and the second was Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes.

Both these books came by recommendation and previous experience of the authors work – I’d read a fair bit of Gaman previously, my favourite being his superlative American Gods, read my review of it here.  I’d not read any Bradbury previously but I’d heard a lot about his work and not being able to talk the boys book club into having a go at one of his books, I decided that I’d be better off reading it off my own bat.

 

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The Ocean (I’ll truncate) is a slender volume hot on the heels of the might tome that was American Gods. I read the hardback version which was a lovely treat as the physicality – touch, smell, weight – is reassuring with a story of this kind, I have no idea why…perhaps it helps to bring a realism to an otherworldly tale. This book tells the story of a boy and a girl in an almost fable like way that’s set in our world but also sits along side a magical, mythical otherworld. Gaman likes these kinds of constructs and uses them to access our childhood dreams – and nightmares – and brings them to life freely and vividly.

The Ocean is a dreamlike book that dips in and out of our so-called real existence into another supernatural and mystical realm, inhabited by flying wolf manta rays, millennia-old witches and unsettling spectral shed beings. It explores hard hitting themes as child abuse and suicide and how these affect children and the mechanisms they use to cope with them. It’s a poetic, ancient story set against the backdrop of childhood and the fear of growing up and indeed grown ups.

I had no idea Something wicked would be a suitable book to follow with. The two central characters are young boys, Jim Nightshade  and Will Halloway (both great names) living in small town USA in the nineteen fifties (I think). Either way, it’s a time of innocence before the advent of the internet and mass media consumption, when the thought of the carnival coming to town would generate huge excitement.

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This is a refreshingly simple tale of evil coming to visit a small town and the ghoulish delights of a devilish troupe of intolerant carnival folk – ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (Bradbury has a way with brilliant names) – who have been peddling their evil ways for centuries. Althought the book tells a familiar story,  it’s the innocence of the tale that is part of the charm – it doesn’t try shock horror tactics – this is all about the anticipation, the atmosphere, the mood and the cracking yarn that Bradbury spins. 

Something wicked is all about time and how it affects all of us. The boys are desperate to grow up and their fathers yearn for a life when they were younger. The malevolent and Mr Dark is at the black heart of the book, almost devil-like in his alluring, tempting ways. 

The book easily and surreptitiously delivers themes around belief and fear and the control people have over each other, for positive and negative. It explores our feelings towards age and growth and fits beautifully with the themes Gaman uses in Ocean. The author implies that our own self centred wishes and desires are the things that restrict us from enjoying the simple pleasures in life which lead ultimately to fulfillment.

It’s a source of frustration for me that books in the fantasy/horror genre are never taken as ‘serious’ literature. Both Ocean and Wicked have been praised highly in certain circles and I would certainly join in that praise. These books use serious, grown up themes to tell entertaining and thought provoking stories. There is a real sense with both books, once opened, the real world disappears but rest assured it’s never too far away in the telling.

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

An unusual choice for the boys book club this month. Put forward by Andrew in an almost hopeful fashion, we were drawn to it as it was outside our usual orbit of choice and as is often the way with books like this, we select it in spite of it almost.

There is so much to like about this book, it’s really difficult to know where to start. The opening sentence of the book sets the tone for what is a moving and poetic story: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan”

The book tells the story of Teoh Yun Ling, a straits Chinese woman born in Malaya in 1923 and how her life was affected by the Japanese occupation of Malay (as it was then) in the Second World War. Interned in a concentration camp with hers sister, the brutality they face at the hands of the Japanese casts a very long shadow on the rest of her life. After her escape from the complete annihilation of the camp and its inmates, including her sister, a promise she makes dictates the path she takes in later life.

The story itself is being told as the narrator, losing her own memory through degenerative illness, looks back on her life and the author skips lightly from present to past tense skilfully, blending the narrative into a compelling and profound story.

As a means of escape from the brutality, the sisters dream of the Japanese gardens they saw pre war and the pledge Teoh Yun Ling makes to her sister to build a garden for her drives her to seek out the most famed and regarded gardener in Japan, Aritomo. He refuses to build her garden but offers to teach her and their relationship unfolds from there.

The author carefully weaves themes of memory, remembrance, retribution, honour and duty into a rich and compelling story. The big themes are played out in beautiful vignettes – families destroyed by war, on both sides, and the post war ‘Emergency’ in Malay of communist uprising provides a unique insight into an overlooked post war event.

The zen-like calm in which the author portrays Aritomo and his disciplined, rigorous life is exquisitely drawn and his growing relationship with the narrator is elegant and touching. On top of being a kick ass gardener it turns out Aritomo is a top notch archer, calligrapher, engraver and tattoo master.

This is a haunting and atmospheric story, packed full of ravishing detail but its key theme is summed up with the quote that appears on page 118:

“The palest ink will outlast the memory of men”

This quote is close to my heart and resonates with me. I have to say when I came across it, I was blindsided. It is an inscription in a note book that my old boss and late mentor Dean Brewer gave to me many years ago. I harangued him for keeping a beautiful handmade book that he’d bought from a craft fair tucked away in his desk drawer. He shrugged his shoulders and then one day there was a brown paper wrapped parcel on my desk. When I opened it, inside was the little handmade notebook. When I opened the cover, there was an inscription.

Here’s what it said:

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So The Garden of Evening Mists struck a real chord with me.

Making marks to remember people and events is what my little book is all about and this book captures the essence of this beautifully.