Review & Recollection: ‘The Morbid Age’ by Richard Overy

IMG_20150403_185423Though not wishing to morbidly dwell on it, I must first say that my grandmother recently died. I have to say that because it is most of the reason I read this book. I found her death very affecting, which isn’t in any way unusual since she was a close relative, but in actuality I really wasn’t close to her. In fact I hardly knew this woman, and most of what I knew about her I had learned second-hand from my father (she was his mother) – and there were never many positive reports. Even during my own few childhood experiences of her she was never particularly warm, and I have heard of periods in my parents’ life together in which my grandmother was a pretty severe and vocal critic of my mother’s relationship with my father. My parents are still together forty years later, and despite my grandmother’s cruelty they both cared for her in her final years.

In these later years Grandma became more volatile as her memory lapsed and her body weakened, and I could see her shrink and change each time I would travel down to Cornwall to visit my parents. My mother would tell me stories of how Grandma would sometimes confuse her for one of several very committed carers or nurses who regularly visited her, and sometimes even have conversations with my mother about relatives and friends who were long dead, almost confessing to cryptic family secrets before the fog eventually lifted. Grandma would mentally travel back in time within her own turbulent history, believing she was surrounded by old familiar faces and stuck in the middle of a fraught scandal, the secret of which she has taken with her to the grave. Her deterioration and her death has made me realise how little I really knew about her. I don’t believe that in talking to her more during her life I would have found out more or ever understood why she was so unkind to my father, but I felt that I could find more about her formative years through the photographs she left behind, in third-hand stories about her and her family, and in books about that period in history, thereby keeping my distance from her raw emotional edges in a way I think she would have felt proper.

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Left to right: my grandmother, a family friend, and her mother

My grandmother was born a year before the end of the First World War, and in her early twenties by the beginning of the Second. Her formative years took place between two of the bloodiest wars in our history, and she lived in London for all of this time – at the centre of cultural drama during the 1920s and ‘30s, and then of the terrorising dogfights and air attacks of the 1940s. My knowledge of this period is disappointingly limited to a handful of facts gleaned from secondary school lessons and Hollywood movies, so Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age was the perfect education. Sure there are tales of glamorous parties filled with jazz and coke dancing alongside those of poverty and unemployment, but these were symptoms of a greater problem that arose with the devastation left by the end of the First World War – one of how a society can survive a trauma as unexpectedly heavy-handed as this one. The British people believed that civilisation itself could not bear another injury so great, and lived with the anxiety of it every subsequent day.

Overy details the shell-shocked mood of the British in several cleanly organised chapters, each discussing a vital area of importance: the desperate economic situation post WWI which nursed a massing interest in communism and socialism; a growing understanding of genetics and birth control which led a disturbingly large number of people to take a great interest in eugenics; the desire for self-assessment on a wide communal scale brought on by a rising interest in psychoanalysis; the Spanish Civil War and it’s effects on a widely encouraged absolute pacifism throughout Britain; and the rise of fascist power in Europe and its effective quelling of the peace movement. The Morbid Age presents the reader with the intricacies of the mood changes and undeniable passion (both good and bad) of the British people during this period, and the final imperative point that nothing much has changed – we are still now incredibly easily swayed and manipulated by media and politicians, only now we are far less likely to join a society or committee to communicate our feelings. Unless of course it has something to do with Jeremy Clarkson’s career.

The picture of tense chaos that Richard Overy paints is captivating, and my only complaint is that he focuses too much of his attention on the highly privileged classes of the period, though I can see reasons for doing so. Despite this, his writing is…perfect. I honestly loved the way this was written. There were certainly moments where I needed a breather, unable to catch up quick enough, hampered by my modest intellect, but I could still find the moments when the author’s own opinion slipped in through a good-humoured but sardonic tone, although he rarely revealed a clearly defined personal agenda. At some points there are names dropped in connection to certain odious activities I won’t detail here, which gave these passages an almost tell-all quality that was compelling to me. I also commend Overy’s defence of Neville Chamberlain – a man demonised by historians for favouring appeasement at the risk of many European lives, and someone I have also felt was weak and morally careless. He positions Chamberlain in his rightful context: a period in which a huge proportion of the population genuinely felt that another war would literally end civilisation. He was far from the only appeaser, and he strove for peace until peace was no longer an option.

I don’t think this book has told me any more about my grandmother, and I would have been foolish to think it would, but I think it has put her in her rightful context. She grew up in a sort of limbo, a time of panic and scaremongering public voices, living in the shadow of a war she couldn’t remember. She was the daughter of a German immigrant during a time when that would have been a frightening thing to be. She was a young woman after Marie Stopes had widely publicised birth control and sexual health. Would she have seen the peace protests through Trafalgar Square? Seen the shops and offices campaigning for Spanish aid? What was she thinking when war was declared? It all fascinates me as much as it did when I first opened the book, and although no one will never be able to answer any of my questions, I feel like my eyes have been opened a little wider. My grandmother wasn’t just a stern old battle-axe. She was once a young woman caught in a strange time. She was the sum of many parts, each as rich and affecting as the other, just like anyone else.

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The Potency of a Beautiful Book

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I can’t read a book on an eReader. I hate doing it. Whenever I have, I’ve felt like this little device has chipped away little bits of my soul, and line by line I would feel more and more disconnected from the text. I once bought a copy of The Blind Assassin in a charity shop, and one morning while I was reading it on the tube a man two seats away from me threw a scrappy little note that landed in my lap, and all it said was, “The Assassin’s great, but you must read The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s much better!” No words passed between us, and I hurriedly tried to concoct a great response before my stop. Sadly all I could come up with was, “I know, I’ve already read it”, which sounded a lot more glib than I intended. Regardless, I treasured this little five minute episode, and when I discovered that half of my copy of the book had been misprinted I was heartbroken. I finished it on my boyfriend’s Kindle, and it was nothing like the same experience.

I realised how much I enjoyed the weight of the book and the sensation of turning a page, as well as the interactions that reading a book in public can bring, and that as long as I was reading a book on this thing no one would be able to talk to me about it, and they would probably all assume I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey like every other woman in the carriage. I enjoy reading a book in the same way that I enjoy going to the theatre. For me, how much I enjoy the play is as much about the mood of the audience, the hubbub, the plush fold-down seats, the architecture, the price of the ticket and the crowded pub you go to beforehand as the play itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to admit in a weird, coercive way that I’m an undercover philistine and that I actually don’t care that much for the script and performance, but I want it all. I feel that something which maximises your sensory experience, explores avenues of vision and touch as well as your intellectual reflexes, is surely going to be much more fun, and memorable, and engaging. This is how I feel when I pick up a book.

Never underestimate the value of a beautiful book jacket. Humans are sensual creatures, as well as vicious critics, and as a book buyer I come up against this constantly. The value of the content is naturally my number one priority, but there is a market I am trying to serve – my job is to find titles that draw people in, to make them pick something up that they won’t want to put down again for fear of losing it, for fear of what the world will look like once they let go of it. It sounds like the ugly side of the book trade, like indulging unabashed capitalist tendencies and accepting the grim admission that a lot of us just like owning stuff. That’s true of course, this attitude does indulge our more superficial inclinations, but I think it’s more important now for the industry than it ever has been to make a book that appeals on a multidimensional level.

With people departing from physical book purchases day by day, jacket design is imperative to the survival of the physical book, and publishers over the past few years have certainly responded to the flux in physical vs. digital book sales. Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Random House, is one of the most successful book designers in the UK, and earned a much-deserved nod from Julian Barnes in 2011 for the design of Booker prize-winning Sense of an Ending and the role she played in the success of the book, and Chip Kidd in the US has become notorious as a champion for the value of engaging book design. Recent publications such as S., conceived by JJ Abrams and executed by Doug Dorst is a perfect example of a rising anti-eBook movement, in which writers and publishers want to deliver us artefacts and tangible mysteries wrapped in explosive and multi-dimensional storytelling. Likewise, an upcoming non-fiction title, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind by David J Linden, is also humorously highlighting the significance of the sensual experience of reading by giving the book a heat-sensitive jacket.

I’m only really writing this because of a recent swathe of authors sending me samples of self-published titles or (very) small publishers sending me samples of poorly produced books, and subsequently either giving me big watery puppy-dog eyes or repeatedly harassing me on the phone for not stocking them. It’s important for an author to know exactly what will make a book buyer want to stock their book, especially a title that they may have spent a great deal of their very precious time writing. David Faulds at Dulwich Books put it perfectly in his recent guide for independent authors – I really couldn’t fault this. The key points for me (aside from content) are of course the discount and, as I have been ranting about, the production quality.

Many independently published titles arrive on my desk which look like design and production were the last things on the author’s mind, and they often don’t agree that the profits made by independent bookshops are as important as the profits made by the author, when they are indisputably entwined. As a buyer I am also much more likely to accept a lower discount for a title that is well-finished and attractive, as I would be more likely to give it a prominent position in the shop and it is naturally more likely to sell. An unattractive, poorly produced book by an unknown author will rarely be picked up by customers passing through, no matter how exquisite the text is – they need to want to touch it first. That is the independent author’s first commercial move, and without that they’ve already lost the game.

The release of special hardback editions of classics and success stories, found embossed, cloth-bound, and in slipcases, from fiction to non-fiction, from adult to young adult to children’s, shows the special attention now being paid to the reader and a new culture in the book trade. The tactile and aesthetic experience of reading is being given its due rank, and readers are being treated to a more complex literary journey in order to preserve traditional reading habits, which in turn preserves bookshops, booksellers, and book designers. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

An Extended Rant About Thomas Hardy’s Heroines: The Agonies and the Ecstasies of Tess Durbeyfield and Bathsheba Everdene

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My reading patterns have yet again been corrupted by the toing and froing of Hollywood, as I was recently coerced into reading Far From the Madding Crowd before I was ready, since the new adaptation is due to be released in May 2015. I know I will need to see the film, stalwart fan of period dramas that I am, but I couldn’t let that be my introduction to a book I had always planned to read.

My only other experience of Thomas Hardy was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published 17 years after FFTMC, and I found it a slog. I felt that Hardy had reeled me in and made me love Tess, all of her endearing naivety and head-turning beauty, and then spent the next 400 pages trampling all over her. By the end of the book I truly hated him for it, and considered never picking up another Hardy novel again. I worried that he would do this to me once more – make me love the central Bathsheba Everdene and then trash her – and in the opening few chapters it looked like it was going to happen. He’d introduced another dark haired, heartbreakingly beautiful woman. He billed her as proud and wilful, amongst many other clichés used to pigeonhole women of Hardy’s time, but her greatest offence? Vanity. Bathsheba was all too aware of the powers of her beauty, and beauty in general, and in her youth she sweeps aside the (slightly creepy) advances of our hero, Gabriel Oak, to protect her autonomy. The worst crime of all.

Gabriel, the finest specimen of a hardworking shepherd, fancies the pants off of Bathsheba as soon as he spies her, so follows her about for a while like a stray dog. She proves her independence and her general vim and vitality in conversation and in activity, and even saves Gabriel’s life once, but is frequently referred to by the narrator and Gabriel as foolish – like all women – but more so because of her embarrassing vanity and independence. Despite this sense that the narrator (Hardy) himself dislikes Bathsheba, she is handed a great dollop of independence in real terms: she inherits her uncle’s farm, and runs it successfully with financial substantiation. She works incredibly hard, gets stuck in whenever she can, and handles her employees with fairness and diplomacy, yet there’s that pesky female foolishness that Hardy keeps reminding us of. Every good deed is patronised, every success undermined. This is what I initially hated about FFTMC, but in the end I think I loved it all the more for it – I felt like Hardy had managed to create a female character who transcended his own condemnations.

Bathsheba falls in and out of love like a real woman, she makes mistakes and misjudgements like a real woman, but she also never shies away from her responsibilities, and she clings onto her ideals in the face of looming pressures and expectations, like any woman would. I think the truly farcical character in FFTMC was in fact the Christ-like Gabriel Oak – a character so flawless, so pure and righteous, that I didn’t find the charm in him that so many have, and found his sublime wisdom at times ludicrous. This is sort of why I find it discordant that Bathsheba, someone I can really understand, is given dialogue that is so strange and self-destructive: she questions Troy over his previous affair with Fanny and he brushes her off, to her response: “Can you jest when I am so wretchedly in earnest? Tell me the truth, Frank. I am not a fool, you know, although I am a woman, and have my woman’s moments.” Good one, Bathsheba. Way to shoot yourself in the foot.

I suppose my real question, after all of this prattle, is: despite his attention to female struggles of the period, was Thomas Hardy a misogynist?

My problem is that the casual dismissal of anything deemed feminine comes not only from the thoughts and dialogue of Hardy’s starring characters, but also from the narrator. It is this detail that makes me feel so uncomfortable, because it stops feeling like simply a portrait of what people of the area and period believed, and more like a shared opinion. When an omniscient narrator offers an opinion it becomes difficult to divide the objective intentions of the book from the nature of the author – yet, by knowing small titbits about Hardy’s life it seems as though he was incredibly romantic, pro social reform (a fan of John Stuart Mill, and married to a suffragette no less), anti the constraints of strict marital laws, so everything points towards someone who was at least considering the favourable outcomes of greater gender equality. Despite this, some things that Bathsheba comes out with are so incongruous with the rest of her character and so unlike something a real woman would say, like punctuating her refusal of Gabriel Oak’s proposal with “It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to”, that it sounds like Hardy never really spoke to a woman – or at least never listened to one. At that point she had spent the last page explaining that she didn’t want to marry him because not only did she not love him, but she didn’t want to relinquish her autonomy. Never in my life have I heard a woman say she needed her independence curbed, and I doubt many Victorian women who experienced any social or financial independence would have either.

Looking back, it’s been quite a while since I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so my views may admittedly be a little warped. In my mind, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is less aggressively presumptive about women than FFTMC, and relies much more upon the harsh truths of their situation during this period, no more so than in the conversation Tess has with her mother after she has been assaulted by Alec: ‘”O mother, my mother!” cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”’

I feel now that Tess had a far more refined and complex characterisation, which seems somewhat fairer to the novel as a whole. The struggles between Tess and the men in her path are more explicitly a demonstration of the strains of their society, and not a personal summation of Hardy’s generic understanding of women. The abuses against her are not justified by her narrator – I never felt I was being convinced that Tess’ foolishness was determined by her sex, but by her class and her pastoral heritage, combined with the preconceptions of her gender, all detrimental to her formal and social education. This is the broader message our author is famous for, and maybe this was Hardy looking to a sort of proto-intersectional thought – Tess is angry because she wasn’t more street-wise, because she knows very well that if her society ranked her just a little higher she could have at least learned about this stuff in books.

My grievances against Tess of the D’Urbervilles seem a little misguided to me now, particularly after reading FFTMC. Although I do still feel like Tess was treated uncommonly cruelly by her creator, I don’t think her treatment was at all unrealistic given the era and her specific circumstances. She’s the stuff of poetry, of folk songs that were born during that period. After all of the bloodshed towards the end of the novel, I think I just felt furious with Hardy for subjecting me to such a tragedy. He knew his readers would love her (except for those who felt she was morally loose), and the only way to show them the error of their ways was to present them with the brutal truths behind their social hierarchy through poor Tess.

I don’t really believe that Hardy was a misogynist, but I do still feel that his representation of women in FFTMC was pretty simple minded – his intentions were good, but his execution was sometimes misguided. I think the characterisation of Tess really feels like the product of 17 more years of personal growth. There’s something distinctly telling, too, about the disparate happy ending for Bathsheba and the sack-load of misery for Tess; whether this is representative of Hardy’s personal experiences of the time I will have to investigate, but I am aware that he married his first wife the year FFTMC was published, and wrote Tess some years into an apparently rocky marriage, so, you know. Anyway, after this rant I think I can finally put my Hardy theories to bed, and move on with my life. And maybe in a few years I can read The Return of the Native and start the whole sorry cycle all over again.

London Art Book Fair 2014: Books vs the (Post) Digital Revolution

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This was my first time at the London Art Book Fair – a relatively small but buzzy affair held at the Whitechapel Gallery, populated with the very best in art book publishers and booksellers, and visited by the very best in heartbreakingly trendy art book enthusiasts. My initiation took place when I dragged an arty pal of mine to the opening night (25th September), and the variety of titles on display across the stalls was really overwhelming. The opening night was heaving and it was really starting to feel like I was out of my depth, but I felt a little more anchored when we wandered by the Nobrow stall. Nobrow is my latest obsession, churning out some seriously beautiful titles in inventive formats, and as I scampered over to the table I thrust the mesmerising Worse Things Happen at Sea into my friend’s hands. I have stocked some of their beautiful books in the Royal Museums Greenwich shops, and vow to continue to keep a close eye on them, particularly the children’s imprint Flying Eye – still only holding a small list, but promising great things. There were other larger publishers in attendance like Thames & Hudson and Black Dog, but the really interesting lists came from the smaller presses like bookRoom, and bookshops dealing in specialist art titles and second hand or rare books such as Koenig Books and Luminous Books.

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An image from ‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’, published by Nobrow

On the Saturday (27th) I went back to the gallery take in a couple of talks. The overall thrust of the fair seemed to concern books as a product, instigator and mediator in the digital revolution (or, as it became clearer throughout the fair, the post-digital revolution). The first of the two talks I went to was CODE X: Paper Pixel and Beyond, a discussion between editor in chief of Neural magazine, Alessandro Ludovico, and Delphine Bedel, Colin Sackett (both contributors to the forthcoming book, Code X) and Emmanuelle Waeckerle of bookRoom. The matter of the hour was the nature and value of the book, in both its physical and digital forms, prompted by the collection of essays in Code X.

There’s something admirable about a book fair that encourages a discussion about what a book really is, what its purpose is and whether there is a better way to consume information in the digital age. Alessandro Ludovico and Delphine Bedel made a series of fascinating points, Bedel often referring to Kant’s writings on ‘the book’. The notion that the book is an object born out of a desire for ownership, but that the story itself is ephemeral and cannot really belong to anyone, catalysed an enlightening tangential discussion – the kind of idea that could feel crushingly relevant to publishers now, as it might well indicate the demise of the physical book.

Convincing arguments notwithstanding, I think the panel landed on the side of the physical book as a mark of grounding stability both philosophically, and in terms of the actual production and digestion of literature, in comparison to the fragility of digital information – its intangibility and reliance upon a fully functioning electrical grid. Our society is currently still firmly rooted in the idea of the physical book, which can be seen in online texts that mimic the turning of a page, through to the bloggers who find success online eventually seeing their creative product bound in a paper book, the latter substantiating their work and bringing a greater degree of kudos. I’m well aware that this is unlikely to always be the case, but as someone who loves to hold a solid book I feel at least momentarily reassured.

I rounded off my adventure amongst the excessively hip with a talk given by Douglas Coupland, well known author of such titles as Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, and also prolific installation artist. His latest offering is a monograph titled Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything, published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. Coupland briefly discussed the idea of literature as art (another prominent theme at the fair) and explained to the audience that his writing is inextricably linked to his visual art, as he is expressing the same ideas but simply using different methods – as he said, ‘Books take place in time, visual art takes place in space, film takes place in both’. Despite this he seemed to feel that the literary world was restrictive, that there are limitations in verbal thinking that don’t exist in visual thinking, and he had no qualms about making the literary world he so often occupies sound pretty drab and frigid – an insight for those on the outside looking in… 51PuWAIFU8L

Although there was a quiet theme of ‘what has the internet done to us’ running through his talk, Coupland seemed happy to entertain us with anecdotes about his installations, which we were all more than happy to listen to. In person Coupland has a rambling and disarmingly candid tone, he laughs easily and every now and again reveals the ingrained sentimentality that I sadly found hard to get along with when reading Girlfriend in a Coma. His latest work of non-fiction, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is a meditation on the cultural implications of the internet, and he finished his discussion by answering a final question from the audience on his feelings about the digital age. Coupland’s final point really nailed it for me, stating that what will define our current era will be how technology has defined us: whether our progress has increased the power of the individual/individuality, or if it has instead empowered the collective. Nice one, Doug.

I loved the Art Book Fair, and I recommend keeping an eye out for next year’s if you haven’t been before. The Whitechapel Gallery is such a perfect venue and you’re sure to find an illuminating angle on two mediums that sit forever side by side, art and literature.

Amazon Feud(s) are Making Way for New and Improved Independent Online Bookshops

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Watching Amazon fight with Hachette was starting to feel like watching your parents fight – you can’t take sides because as a book lover they both offer you different, but highly valuable, services. Plus they’re grown-ups, and they should really know better. As the saga has gone on, and Amazon has made more and more enemies both in and outside of the publishing industry, they now seem less like the ugly side of a justifiable battle, and more like the playground thug out to steal everyone’s lunch money. It only adds to this image when Amazon’s people respond like infants (see their famous George Orwell misquote in an open letter to ‘readers’) and throw tantrums which manifest in the removal of certain books and pre-order buttons, and generally making life miserable for the authors and their customers.

And that is the saddest side of the whole debacle. Amazon’s monopolising, money-grabbing tendencies are punishing writers, who often seem to be discussed in a pained ‘think about the children’ manner. While Amazon and the mighty publishers squabble over who should get the most money from the books they produce and sell, they seem to unashamedly sail past the notion that the people who should be earning the most from their books are probably the writers since they, you know, WROTE THE BOOKS. And as they plough through each publishing house like so much wheat and chaff, it appears as though Amazon is just too big. It’s too resilient. Amazon have enough fingers in enough pies to bump along quite happily without the good favour of the odd publishing house for a while, but how long can even the biggest publishing houses survive without Amazon? With the grinding down of major book retailers, publishers are no longer able to take the revenue from the high streets they once could – Amazon is our high street now.

It was in fact eBook profit margins that triggered Amazon’s myriad disputes, and not those of the physical books they are toying with – Amazon naturally wanting a bigger slice, the publishers naturally saying no. Amazon’s ailing profit margins have shaken their share price, and it seems more and more like the company is becoming a victim of its own business model. The problem is, saying no to Amazon is sort of like saying no to the mob. Their actions in the last few months have infuriated many people in the literary community, and Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House, even exasperatedly asked the New York Times “How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it”.

It does, however, look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is an increasingly large variety of places we can find cut-price and out of print books, both physical and online, but until recently Amazon was the one we all knew. They can knock huge percentages off the RRP, while smaller sites can only do up to around 35% off before they start losing money. I think 35% is enough. It may now be in our hands as consumers to rob Amazon of its monopoly, simply by shopping elsewhere.

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Publishers and authors are angry, and are beginning to experiment with different ways of selling their books online, such as HarperCollins revamping their website to make it easier for customers to buy their books directly from the publisher. Penguin Random House also launched their new site, My Independent Bookshop, a few months ago, offering a completely new way to buy books online. The site emulates the experience of walking into an indie bookshop and being told what is really worthwhile buying, by people worthwhile listening to: booksellers and writers. Each virtual shop set up by an author or bookseller is given a name and a street, giving the shopper the sense of meandering through winding literary avenues. You can also buy the books being recommended to you via Hive, the Gardners Books e-commerce arm – there’s no steering us towards Amazon here. And best of all, this isn’t only a boost for independent online book sales – shoppers can choose a real world indie bookshop which will receive a percentage of the commission, as well as act as a pick-up point for the books bought via Hive to encourage consumers to take a trip to the physical shop. Another indie online store, The Best Little Bookshop, launched their new bookselling site in beta last month, spotting the gap in the market: there is room for an independent online bookshop which can show us an altogether more appealing shopping experience. They show us beauty as well as substance by presenting an endearing selection of recommended titles on the homepage, as well as adding an area that presents us with ‘Small press and Handmade’ titles for the true connoisseur.

It’s important now to avoid buying books on Amazon, not only because it can be a much more enjoyable experience on another site, but for the sake of diversifying the market – save us all from falling down the Amazon rabbit-hole and instead reach out for an altogether more benevolent, and beneficial, method of book buying.

Lovely online bookshops for happy browsing:

http://www.bestlittlebookshop.com/

https://www.myindependentbookshop.co.uk/

http://www.hive.co.uk/

http://www.foyles.co.uk/

http://www.bookstore.co.uk/

http://www.abebooks.co.uk/

http://www.bookdepository.com/

http://dauntbooks.co.uk/

http://booksellercrow.co.uk/shop/

A Misspent Childhood: Books I Wish I’d Read as a Child, and Well-Loved Books Worth Revisiting

IMG_20140826_210620Recently the memory of a book I was given as a child by my Dad re-emerged while I was telling a colleague an anecdote. He loves classical history, and I mentioned this obscure book that I had been given when I was around 11 or 12, that I don’t believe I fully understood at the time. I was edging my way into more adult literature around this time, and one day my Dad handed me The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith – something he had read as a child and loved. His copy was well worn, proof of his affection for it 30 years earlier, and as any child might I idolised my father and took on his recommendation. I have a strong recollection of thumbing the fragile pages while we were on an excessively long holiday in California, sitting in the back of a rental car zipping across the Mojave Desert, listening to TLC on my trusty Walkman.

As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t really get it. There were whole chunks of the book that I remember being hilarious, but others that just sailed past me. After lending the book to my friend I was inspired to re-read it, convinced that I would have far more patience now. I opened it for the first time in 15 years, and sensory memories came flooding back to me when I touched the grainy pages and out fell an old ratty cotton bookmark I’d shoddily embroidered as a child.

The novel was written in 1931 about a wealthy eccentric American, Hunter Hawk, and his insufferable family, and reads like something between an Evelyn Waugh satire and a Neil Gaiman romp. With great effort, Hunter has perfected a method of turning people into stone statues, and with the help and magic of ‘The Little People’ he also learns to turn statues into flesh and bone, causing no end of havoc. While being comical, Smith often alludes to the corruption of wealth, the mindless parties, drug taking and heavy drinking that fills these people’s lives, and there is no small amount of romantic confusion that pivots around off stage sexual encounters. I’m no longer surprised that this book didn’t click with me when I was 11.

It really is a treat – an escapist, screwball delight that has you wrapped up in the pleasures of the gods. Smith knew exactly how to throw you off course, and give you the sensation of being carried away by a circus – all reason and rationality lost along the way. I’m so glad I picked this up again, and it’s such a shame that there is pretty much nothing by him in print any longer. It’s likely that this will be the only novel by Thorne Smith I’ll ever read.

Reading this reminded me of the things I chose to read as a child, and the things I ignored that I really shouldn’t have. I wish I had been a more adventurous reader as a child, as I feel sure that my 11 year old self would have truly loved books like Howl’s Moving Castle or His Dark Materials (as I certainly do now as an adult), and I wonder how reading books like these back then would have changed me. I would love to go back and visit myself, and hand me a copy of The Call of the Wild or The Wizard of Earthsea and wait for my reaction.

While thinking about the books I wish I’d read, I also considered the books I deeply loved as a child that I could get something completely different out of now as an adult:

BoyDahlBoy by Roald Dahl

I think anyone who grew up around Great Missenden, like I did, feels a special sort of connection with Roald Dahl in an almost possessive or territorial way, as he was a well know local. We used to drive past his home on the way to school, and I would stretch in my seat to glimpse the famous gypsy caravan through the bushes in his garden. I loved Boy because, unlike Dahl’s novels, it felt like reality with a lick of adventure, and not the other way around. He used to play tricks on locals and family members to pass the time, and detailed the brutal corporal punishment at his school that I always felt thankful wasn’t mine. I still feel emotionally attached to this biography, and I would love to have a read of it from the other side of my childhood.

Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the--001The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I only recently found out that the novel was pre-dated by the radio series – I had always assumed otherwise. I remember listening to the series in the car on long journeys when I was small, when the main attraction was the silly words and names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, and then reading it some years later (after watching the 80s TV series too). I feel that Douglas Adams’ sense of humour influenced my own, and it’s again something I feel mildly territorial about as it feels so valuable to my formative years. It would be great to give it another read through, to see how little I probably remember.

silly verseSilly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan

I loved Spike Milligan so much, from his riotous part in The Goon Show (another car journey treat), and his various TV shows that must have been repeated on the BBC when I was small, to his surreal drawings, and of course his poetry. I think revisiting his children’s verse is vital, as well as the vast collections intended for adults, to recapture the eye watering giggles they inspired in me 20 years ago.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I felt there was a bit of an absence of female writers/female characters on my list, and I’m still wondering why that is. However, Wuthering Heights got me around 14 years old, and I have re-read it 2 or 3 times since. It really shaped how I felt about love and romance for a long time, making me believe that anything I may have felt for someone that was less than earth shattering really wasn’t worth the bother. A dangerous notion in the hands of a teenager, and probably the reason for my very romantically unsuccessful adolescence…

only-you-can-save-mankind-2Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

This was my opener – the gateway book which would lead me to the harder stuff: Discworld. It seems as though Discworld overshadows a huge amount of Pratchett’s other work which, although inevitable, is sort of sad. The Johnny Maxwell series grabbed me instantly as a child – the nonsense and chaos, combined with adventures that seemed tantalisingly possible. These are some of the few novels Terry Pratchett set in our reality, and they really are so much fun, as well as offering an alternative world-view integral to broadening children’s minds.

Book Slam at York Hall, 12th August

viv Kate Tempest hillmann Book-Slam-Irvine-Welsh-credit-Nick-Cunard

Recently I bagged myself a much coveted ticket to the first Book Slam to take place at the infamous East London boxing venue, York Hall, in anticipation of an excellent line-up.

If you haven’t heard of Book Slam, then it’s time to get on it. It’s a (sort of) monthly literary club night taking place in various locations around London, most often in the Clapham Grand or the Tabernacle near Ladbroke Grove. It’s a fantastic hub of creative talent, usually hosted by a popular or up-and-coming comedian, to showcase the talents of well-known and not-so-well-known writers. These writers usually have something to promote, so it’s also a brilliant platform for them too.

Last night’s show felt particularly special, and naturally drew in a large crowd, because of the calibre of the writers present: Irvine Welsh, Viv Albertine, Kate Tempest, and debut writer Bill Hillmann. We began with Bill Hillmann, ‘one-time street brawler, drug dealer, convict, Chicago Golden Glove Champion, and bull runner’. He read an extract from his new novel The Old Neighborhood, a story of three boys caught in the snare of Chicago’s vicious street gangs, and their struggle to survive or succeed. Hillmann stood in the centre of the boxing ring and read an extract with the thick, gravelly Chicago timbre you would expect, and firmly set the fear in all of us when explaining that the passage was inspired by the drive-by shooting of his sister.

After a short break Hillmann was followed by Viv Albertine, former front woman of legendary punk band The Slits, reading from her knew autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. She was incredibly bold and candid with the audience when discussing her bouts of cancer and failed marriages, oozing an atmosphere of ‘say what you want, I couldn’t give a fuck’ – albeit a very friendly one. She signed a book for me in the interval, and seemed genuinely surprised by how well she went down, which only served to make her more endearing. She was quickly followed by Kate Tempest, the poet-cum-rapper who bizarrely I shared a couple of English courses with at Goldsmiths. She is a force of nature when performing, and I feel that seeing her poetry on the page can never do justice to how it actually feels watching her on stage. She brought the crowd to their knees while she popped and sparked in the ring, and alerted us to her new collection of poetry edited by none other than Don Paterson.

Finally, Irvine Welsh arrived in the ring. He was present to promote his new book, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, but wisely chose to not read from this novel as it is populated by young women from Florida, which would have sounded pretty weird spoken in his deep Scottish drawl. He instead read an extract of a novel due to be published next year, based around the crowd pleasing character, ‘Juice’ Terry, who appears in several of Welsh’s books. After Kate Tempest and Viv Albertine, Welsh felt a little uninspiring, though I think that is only testament to how great all of the writers were.

If you have never been to a Book Slam, please GO. This was my fourth time, and every time I’ve gone has been seriously fun. There is good food, good company, a good show, and it all only costs a fiver. You have no excuse.

Bookslam logoCheck out upcoming Book Slams here.