Some years ago during one of the dull seasons—our work was very much on the seasonal side—my Waterstones branch entered a Book Tokens company competition on ‘opening lines’. We had to identify the opening lines of various more-or-less famous novels. We also had to come up with an opening line of our own. For whatever reason, ‘I’d been prodding the Frenchman with my boot all day to see if he was dead’ was the egg that my subconscious laid and we used that. It bothered me a little, it itched, and I knew that I wanted to make a story from it some time. Much later, the story suddenly came to me in the shower; at that time most of my best ideas, such as they were, seemed to emerge under hot water. I used to covet a pen with ink that would hold to the watery tiles, but that could be wiped away later. Continue reading
Glass by Alex Christofi. My review for Shiny New Books.
Alex Christofi’s debut novel is a mildly eccentric, likeable and interesting not-quite romp.
I have come to wonder whether I will make it through my twenty-third year. In the nine months since my mother died, I started a new job, which led me to meet a number of new people, one of whom I killed in a misunderstanding. But other things happened in the first twenty-two years that I should explain first.
The tale of a pub
When I moved to Bristol in 2002 people still talked about Finnegan’s Wake on Cotham Hill. I would say that I’d had a drink and eaten a pizza at The Hill and Bristolians would nod and say ‘Ah, you were at Finnegan’s Wake.’ The Hill was new, you see. For years locals still called it Finnegan’s, with a sort of lazy obstinacy. It was odd, because no one had any affectionate memories of the old pub; it was a nondescript Irish theme bar, notable only for being named after Joyce’s vast unreadable novel. In fact, during my fifteen minutes’ research for this, no one I asked could recall anything about it: ‘I don’t remember, there were probably some Irish props scattered about the place and some old-fashioned signs and agricultural implements on the wall’. Continue reading
When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. There cannot be any better proof of the physical efficiency of a man than that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world. And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiency of a nation than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem. There can be no stronger sign of a coarse material health than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals; it is in the first exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon. None of the strong men in the strong ages would have understood what you meant by working for efficiency. Hildebrand would have said that he was working not for efficiency, but for the Catholic Church. Danton would have said that he was working not for efficiency, but for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Even if the ideal of such men were simply the ideal of kicking a man downstairs, they thought of the end like men, not of the process like paralytics. They did not say, “Efficiently elevating my right leg, using, you will notice, the muscles of the thigh and calf, which are in excellent order, I—” Their feeling was quite different. They were so filled with the beautiful vision of the man lying flat at the foot of the staircase that in that ecstasy the rest followed in a flash.
G K Chesterton 1905 Heretics
My dislike of the word ‘pamper’ suddenly caught fire recently. Walking through an English seaside town, I saw sign after sign advertising ‘pamper packages’ of some sort. There was competition to see who could offer the most ludicrously overblown one; fourteen hours of pampering and spa treatments by candlelight as you’re fed Turkish Delight by captive apes wearing golden chains, each trained to whisper because you’re worth it and smile sympathetically, their grave simian eyes showing that they understand and value you—they don’t judge. Continue reading
We tend to think of fops as weak, coddled, over-groomed, and lacking in mettle. A man wearing make-up, a powdered wig and silks, speaking with an affected drawl and striking artful poses; a woman with towering hair and a lapdog, fanning herself with infinite boredom and leisure. The 18th-century gentry must have been be soft, lacking in grit, surely? Continue reading
We had a few cold days, but for the most part December was horribly mild. It felt like a reverse Narnia; ‘always Christmas but never winter’. That’s not to sneer at Christmas, there’s much to be said for eating, drinking, and irrational, even stupid cheerfulness. But without winter it all seemed a bit thinner, more watery, less convincing. It was more about the trappings and less about the feel of the thing. Continue reading
Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.
Robertson Davies 1951 Tempest-Tost (part one of the Salterton Trilogy)
In the late 19th century terrorism and unrest were commonplace in parts of Europe and the United States. Anarchists were the main bogeymen, though there were numerous violently progressive movements, each hating the others. Anarchists were a mysterious and little understood underground, haunting the popular imagination, much written about in the newspapers and in novels and stories, both feared and fascinating. There was a certain dark glamour and they terrified beyond any rational danger. There were many, many more likely causes of death, but there is something intimidating about someone desiring your death impersonally, and apparently not fearing their own. We feel this now as much as then, and it’s as well to get some perspective. Continue reading
Hitler once had a friend, of sorts: August ‘Gustl’ Kubizek. In the 1950s Kubizek wrote a memoir of young Adolf, a careful but somewhat sentimental and admiring one.
For a vital phase during the early years of his life, his late teenage years in Linz and Vienna, when we otherwise have tantalisingly little to go on, Hitler had a personal—and exclusive —friend, who later composed a striking account of the four years of their close companionship. This friend was August Kubizek. His account is unique in that it stands alone in offering insights into Hitler’s character and mentality for the four years between 1904 and 1908. It is unique, too, in that it is the only description from any period of Hitler’s life provided by an undoubted personal friend—even if that friendship was both relatively brief and almost certainly one-sided. For, like everyone else who came into contact with Hitler, Kubizek would soon learn that friends, like others, would be dropped as soon as they had served their purpose.
Ian Kershaw, Preface, The Young Hitler I Knew
After the holiday blow-out many people start to think uneasily about New Year reformation. New Year, new you and all that biznai. From my window I saw joggers stumbling red-faced and queasy through the streets on New Year’s Day. People join gyms and sign up to diets. They make resolutions. They look at themselves unhappily, feeling old and unwell. Some of this is a natural revulsion of sentiment after the long Christmas and New Year binge, and it can be healthy enough. Where it fails is where it touches the fault lines in our peculiar attitudes to food and health. Continue reading
I began hating New Year somewhere in my teens and it took me years to make some sort of accommodation with it. After weeks of hoo-ha and feasting, rarely a quiet moment alone, there’s this. I enjoy the long Christmas, there’s much to be said for a spell of eating, drinking and irrational, even stupid cheerfulness, but after a while you begin to at least half-crave some temperance and a book. Continue reading