The book that…
I first loved
was Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. I wasn’t old enough to read it, but I scrawled my name (with upside down e and back to front r) on the title page and doted on it until the cover came off. My mum read it to me so much that when I’ve looked it at since I’ve had the eerie sensation of hearing her voice. I became obsessed with Peter Pan and the idea of flying. I think it’s one of the books — like the Bible — that you think you know until you reread parts of it and see just how peculiar it is. The idea of the Lost Boys, Peter’s permanent tragic youth, his cruel, rather narcissistic character, his reunion with the grown-up Wendy… It all has a pungent strangeness and a sadness that gives it an eternal, mythic quality. You feel like it comes from a place much deeper than the conscious mind. Kipling writes that among all the millions of lines ever written there are only a few of which you can say: “These are the pure Magic. These are the clear Vision.” I still think you can say this of Peter Pan.
I last read
was The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. I finished it in bed the night before last and wished that I had read it earlier. It’s as sharp and brilliant as a crossbow bolt. The technical achievement of it is amazing — so much story so tightly told — but the moral achievement is probably more incredible. It’s amazing to me that, in 1950, before the Civil Rights movement in America, before decolonization in Africa, and while racial attitudes in Britain were still largely unexamined, a 25-year old white Rhodesian woman was able to look at her own culture, see that it was rotten to the core, and then absolutely skewer it in this book.
I keep by my bedside
is The Russian Learner’s Dictionary which lists 10,000 Russian words in the order of the frequency with which they appear in ordinary Russian. The first 1000 are like old friends (television, rocket, knife), the next couple of thousand are like nodding acquaintances (pink, glorious, photo), from 5000 on they’re mostly strangers (crafty, hoof, day-dreaming), and between 9000 and 10000 they’re nightmarish things which I despair of ever learning (affable, puny, aircraft carrier).
I want to read next is
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. I’ve just started the first volume in this tetralogy, Some Do Not… The Good Soldier has been a favourite novel of mine for years, and Parade’s End was recommended to me by Russell Hoban, himself a brilliant writer. Parade’s End has never been as popular as The Good Soldier and I can see that it requires a degree of attentiveness from the reader, but I’m enjoying it and those who have finished it say it’s his masterpiece…
I recommend to everyone is
Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov. Shalamov’s stories are about life in the Soviet penal system. Shalamov was repressed under Stalin and was imprisoned for almost 15 years in Siberian prison camps where he endured hardships that are almost inconceivable to us. Everything about the life that men like him endured is interesting and important, but Shalamov writes with the spareness and humanity of Chekhov. I can’t imagine anyone failing to be moved by this book.
I loved as a child
is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s the first book that I actually read. I bought it in 1974 with my own money from the W H Smiths in Catford for 38 pence and read it in one day. It was like going into another dimension. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed another book quite as much.
Kept me awake at night
Dr Johnson and Mr Savage is a fantastic biography by Richard Holmes, also the author of outstanding biographies of Coleridge. I started reading this book at a time when I lived in a flat above an advertising creative (itself an oxymoron) who would come home from the pub with their mates, get drunk, and play loud music. For a period of about a week, it seemed that every time I got to bed and opened this book, I’d hear the downstairs door open, Morcheeba on the stereo, and drunken incontinent laughter from my neighbour’s idiot friends. As anyone who’s suffered noisy neighbours will tell you, it actually starts to drive you insane. Happily, I don’t live there any more, but to this day, I find it hard to open this book in case it presages another broken night and pyjama-clad confrontations with stoned advertising types.
Made me laugh
Dos and Don’ts: 10 Years of Vice Magazine’s Street Fashion Critiques is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s just a commentary on photographs of what ordinary people are wearing, but so truculent, inventive and funny, that every time I open it I laugh. And I have no interest in fashion whatsoever.
Made me cry
This is quite strange. I don’t normally cry when I read books, but occasionally a line will set me off. I used to swap Russian lessons for English lessons with a bloke called Anatolii who had been a dancer at the Kirov ballet. He was brilliant at teaching Russian and really helped me. I was a bit hopeless at teaching him English, but I introduced him to some writers and brought The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde for him to practice his listening comprehension. For some reason, every time I read the line, “Nay, these are the Wounds of Love,” in ‘The Selfish Giant’, I would get tears in my ears. If this were a short story, that would almost certainly lead to the revelation that I was in love with him. But as far I know, I wasn’t.
Changed my life
I think that every book I read alters my life at least a little bit. It’s like meeting a new person. It exposes you to new ideas, reframes your way of looking at the world, perhaps inspires you to go somewhere, or learn about something else. However, if I were to single out a book, I think I’d pick The Alleycat by Yves Beauchemin. I found this book in a bookstore in Montreal in 1990. I had driven up to Canada in a snowstorm to visit a town called Yamaska where my ancestors on my father’s side of the family, all come from. At the time, I was studying for a master’s degree in International Relations and reading and writing a lot of academic prose. I was not aware that I had any ambition to write fiction. The Alleycat is a literary novel but with no literary pretension. It’s all action and dialogue, moves at an amazing clip and when I read it, it bowled me over. “Gusto”, “magic”, and “transformative” are not words that anyone ever applied to academic writing. The Alleycat inspired me to take tentative steps towards writing fiction myself.
Opened my horizons
I recently read Memoirs of A Surrey Labourer by George Bourne. I had never heard of its author. It was just a book I picked up at my in-laws house and found myself engrossed by. George Bourne is actually the pen-name of a man called George Sturt, who ran a wheelwright’s shop in Farnham. He wrote a number of books at the beginning of the 20th century, most of them dealing with the ending of traditional rural life in England. A number of them drew on the experiences of his gardener, a fellow called Bettesworth. I was astonished by Bourne’s work. To begin with, his writing is sharp and clear. But his subject matter is — I think — very profound. It deals with the way our lives have lost their millennia-old links to the land. The way of life that seems so normal to us now in the 21st century is really an aberration. We’ve grown used to softness and abundance. But very recently lives in this country were conditioned by hardship and scarcity. Bettesworth himself represents the dying out of a folk tradition that goes back to before Shakespeare’s time. It’s amazing for so many reasons, but not least because Bettesworth is essentially a peasant, maintaining peasant traditions within an area that a half a century later we think of as the M25.
I will read to my children
I always feel that The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper is a fantastic set of novels. The young wizard, Will Stanton, is a kind of precursor to Harry Potter, but the world of the novels is less cute and more rugged. They cover the British landscape from the Home Counties, to the mountains of North Wales, and the coast of the South West. I was crazy about them as a child and am looking forward to reading them again.
I would steal from my children
Probably only Cooking is a Game You Can Eat by Fay Maschler. It was a cookbook for children in the 1970s. I lost my copy and it feels like a gap in my collection. There’s something lovely about old cookbooks with blobs of tomato sauce and flour on them. This and the 1977 Dairy Cookbook evoke happy times in the kitchen.
I would read on a beach
I’m not crazy about reading books on the beach. It’s too hot, and sweat and sun tan lotion get onto them. Isn’t that what magazines are for?
I would read at Christmas
My father wrote two Christmas books for children: London Snow and A Christmas Card. London Snow is such a great title. And the book is set in the South London of my childhood; mainly in an old sweetshop in Battersea that now probably sells architectural mouldings or scented candles. But A Christmas Card probably edges it for me. You’d have to read it to understand why.