The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

I’ll happily pick out a book because of a good title: and The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is an excellent title. Given that the book bearing the title is a travel book about Icelandic museums, I had to buy it.

Iceland’s population is, according to wikipedia, 364,000. Brighton has a population of 230,000 – so Iceland is basically a nation the size of Brighton and Lewes combined. Somehow, this small country has 265 museums. Nobody is quite sure why Iceland has so many, but it is apparently a recent phenomenon.

A. Kendra Greene’s book describes her visits to some of these museums. The writing is exquisite and reminds me of Borges, with subtle and stunning flights of erudition, such as the lovely section about Hermai. The real things she describes sound fantastical, like how Icelanders used seal- or fish-skin for shoes, which wore out quickly. They would measure the distances in terms of how many shoes they needed. Or, take this quote:

Indeed, there is a certain practice in Iceland of making a display of one’s home window. Not everyone does it, and it’s only ever one window of a home, a single stage, but there some combination of taxidermy or seashells or figurines or fake flowers in a little vase. Not a lot of things, not like storage, but the windowsill subbing as a bookshelf. No, just a few things, a spare kind of diorama: just a part of black converse shoes and a puffin posed on a rock.

Another lovely piece of phrasing comes when Greene talks about ‘qualified superlatives’: “The brochure claims ‘Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum is considered the largest private bird collection that is known in Iceland’. One only wonders about collections yet unknown.

The book makes me think of two offbeat museums that I love: Anna’s Museum in Brighton (which now has an entry on Atlas Obscura); and the Museum of Jurassic Technology (I wrote a zine about my trip there). Museums can be simple things, growing from a small wunderkammer, like Anna’s windows. Greene’s book suggests that everyone should have their own museum, however small.

Review: Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

I have very few vices, but one of them is a love of political diaries and insider accounts. Part of it is the gossip, but there’s also a fascination in seeing glimpses of how the world really works. Sometimes these glimpses have changed my views: Alastair Campbell’s diaries gave me a more sympathetic view of New Labour; and Tim Shipman’s description of Corbyn’s behaviour during the Brexit campaign made me consider him less favourably than my friends do.

Swire’s book is an odd one, starting with its disingenuous introduction. Here, Swire claims that she showed the book to a literary agent “out of curiosity, and somewhat foolishly” and was “swept up into a publishing tornado“. She makes it sound accidental. Even more fascinating, the agent in question was Boris Johnson’s sister’s sister-in-law – small world.

I’m amazed that this book was published. It is vicious and open in its portrayal of the upper classes and their casual privilege. These are simply not very nice people, who use their money as a license to act badly. As the New Statesman memorably put it, “like a chili pepper inserted into a racehorse’s anus, this book is guaranteed to get your class war dander up”.

It’s Christopher Moran buying a cheap lease on Crosby Hall and throwing out the “old biddies“ living there before transforming it into a £25 million thirty-bedroom mansion. It’s Hugh, the MP husband, joking that a buyer in an auction must be on benefits to be bidding £60,000. It’s the resentful way the Swires deal with problems at Port Eliot festival, where they hired a teepee, “at huge expense” (I think I was there that same year and got flooded out in my own cheap tent). It’s mocking Pauline Prescott as “fragrant”, and sneering at her taste. It’s Prime Minister Cameron, involved in discussion about which female MPs are “beddable”. It’s Daily Mail heir Johanthan Rothermere and his wife taking delight in switching the ownership of a mansion to his wife to protect his “sort of non Dom” status. There are so many more such moments.

As an aside, I particularly liked one particular mention of the Rothermeres:

Despite its grand scale, [The Rothermere house] is as discreet as a military base on an Ordnance Survey map; land was purchased all around it to protect their privacy. Ironic, I know. Only one hill remains out of their possession and is clearly quite an irritation to them.

There are more differences between the rich and regular people, other than just the money. There is a episode where Swire is involved in preparations for a royal visit. Her daughter transcribes the security officer’s discussions, playing at being a spy. This notebook is then left behind at a pizza restaurant. Swire tells this as a funny story, rather than an appalling breach of security. But people like this don’t deal with consequences. To be fair, it is funny that the security officers were openly discussing the arrangements in front of someone who was writing it all down. But breaches of security like this would be a disciplinary offence for most people. It must be good to be so safe from consequences.

The book is readable, apart from the occasional bits of purple prose. My main criticism, obviously, was that there were some good sections on hiking, and these should have been given more space. I suspect that’s just me.

The book leaves me wondering, what was Swire thinking? The Guardian’s review sums it up: ”If you needed proof that Britain has been misruled by the unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish then the acerbic Lady Swire, unwittingly or not, has provided it.”

Swire at one point laments that “The electorate want gods above them and are disappointed to find humans who turn out to be just as fallible as themselves”. Most of the people I know are decent and kind and generous, and Swire has given a portrait of people who are more fallible than anyone I know.

Swire, again: “It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man, already angered by the continuing hold of the British class system”. People are angry a lot these days – just look at what Twitter became. Aimless anger suits the sort of people described by Swire, who benefit undeservedly from the class system. Far more important is actually doing something about it.

1,001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before You Die

While I hate the idea of them, bucket lists fascinate me. It’s the way that they reduce life to a set of tasks to complete before the ultimate deadline.

It’s particularly creepy how the media promotes impersonal bucket lists, almost-arbitrary requirements to have lived a ‘complete’ life. There is a whole series of books based around things that you should do before you die, produced by Quintessence Editions. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. And so on.

I know these books are not really intended to be completed, but I find the idea that you might try enthralling. I have to hold myself back from researching or writing about this, because it’s a black hole and I have too many distractions already.

But, I can imagine a book collecting these books – 1001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before you Die. I can see each one graded – difficulty, novelty, time to complete and so on.

Take the book of 1000 books to read before you die. If you managed 100 books a year, that is ten years of solid reading. I only manage 100 books on a good year, and one that involves a lot of travelling. 1,000 books will take even longer if you interrupt it with other books. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is, allowing for sleep, about 9 weeks. Then there are the ones requiring travel, such as 1001 restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die. Maybe you could combine that with another book requiring travel but even so… it’s a lot.

And so many others… 101 chillies to try before you die. 1001 TV Series to Watch (how many hours is each of these?). 101 Gins. 1001 plants you must grow before you die. Although I am quite tempted to browse 1001 Walks You must experience before you die. I doubt I could get even a tenth of the way through that in what remains of this lifetime.

I wish I had time before I die to review 1001 of these volumes. I think it would make quite a book.

Nemesis the Warlock

I’ve recently been re-reading Nemesis the Warlock. This was an 80s comic strip serialised in British weekly anthology 2000AD. I was amazed at how well this held up, particularly when compared to contemporary American comics.

Nemesis is set thousands of years in the future. Earth, now renamed Termight, has been hollowed out to form a massive city which includes huge gravity-defying roadways. The Terran Empire is ruled by Torquemada, an reincarnation of the 15th century Spanish priest who led the Spanish Inquisition. This modern Torquemada leads a genocidal campaign of extermination against both his own people (including dream scanners – ‘Sleep is no refuge for impure thoughts’) and against the galaxy’s aliens. An alien resistance movement called Credo is fighting back, led by a powerful warlock called Nemesis. The saga focusses on the struggle between the two.

Comedy is an important part of this story. Fascism is repeatedly mocked, with bigotry portrayed as, not simply evil, but ridiculous. There are the slogans (‘Be pure, be vigilant, behave’ turned up on the Holy Bible album) and ridiculous hypocrisy. One double-page spread features a Torquemada convention, mocking the sort of events held in the comics industry., where the dictator’s ‘fans’ buy expensive tat.

The early books, illustrated by Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot, are incredibly detailed. Kevin O’Neill, the first artist, was actually once banned by the comics code authority for his very style. There are also photo stories by Brighton’s Tony Luke, but my favourite artist on the character is John Hicklenton. He worked on the two ‘historical’ books, one set in the Inquisition, and one set in the Thatcher period. The very figures of the characters here are twisted and grotesque, Torquemada’s body seeming to be bursting from its skin.

I read Nemesis for the first time when book 7 was originally published. This one featured Torquemada travelling back in time to meet his ancestor during the Spanish Inquisition. I was 11 years old at the time, and the comic is strong stuff. Setting a science fiction comic during such an ugly period of history is strange but works to great effect.

Book 9 was set in (at the time) contemporary London. Torquemada has been sent back through a time accident, and has set himself up as chief of police. At the same time, he takes advantage of people displaced from ‘time accidents’ as a slum landlord. It should be a disaster, but it worked – even the section where Torquemada was obsessed by one of his tenants, a Goth student.

For me, the most shocking thing about Nemesis was how well it had had aged, with the satire hitting as hard as it did at the time. The oppressive Britain in Book 9 is probably slightly less of an exaggeration than it was at the time, when the home office send squads to capture illegal immigrants. It would be easy to fit a Farage or a Johnson among the characters of the Terran empire.

Few artists working in contemporary superhero comics are creating such detailed work (although the pace was brutal for the original artists). The book’s complexity probably stands against it being a classic and it never worked in the US editions, where is was shrunk and recoloured. I don’t think there would be much culture I enjoyed at 11 which would impress me as much as Nemesis has decades later.

Review: ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ by Ben Graham

I read a version of Ben Graham’s new book ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ in March, just as lockdown was starting. The book was written for the 50th Anniversary of the doomed ‘Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz’ festival and is officially published next month. It’s turned out to be a sadly appropriate book for a summer without festivals.

Ben does a great job of telling the story, using his research without quite puncturing the legendary parts of the tale. “On the weekend of August 14-16, 1970, roughly 25,000 people gathered for the first Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival. It was also the last”.

There’s a lovely story arc, as the enthusiastic promoters do their best to put on a festival, find solutions to many problems but ultimately doomed by forces they can’t control. Ben paces the narrative well and provides some lovely asides.

I’ve been to some grim festivals. I’ve seen muddy years at Glastonbury, and was a day visitor to one of the flood years at Download. I also enjoyed the charmingly shambolic final Playgroup festival. But the problems faced by the Krumlin festival went beyond that: an isolated, exposed location, beset by vicious weather. It was a true festival hell.

The physical book is really good looking. I adore the cover, and there are some fantastic photos. I particularly liked the one of Christy Moore standing on the M62, which was being built at the time. This motorway lurks wonderfully in the background of the story, with Ben using quotes from a report on its construction to illustrate the severity of weather conditions at one point.

I re-read the book on an English summer’s day, sat in a garden marquee while it pissed down outside. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the bands, the tale is really one of man versus the elements. It’s well worth reading – and definitely essential for anyone who’s idly thought, “I reckon we should put on a festival”.

Purple People Publication!

Exciting post this week: Kate Bulpitt’s novel Purple People has arrived!

In an effort to tackle dispiriting, spiralling levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, the government has a new solution: to dye offenders purple

Kate describes the book as a ‘jolly dystopia’, which is a lovely phrase. She’s certainly pulled off a very different type of dystopia. It’s sinister but also comforting and English. I mean, it’s easy to write moody, scary scenarios. Kate has written something light without making it unserious.

Purple People was produced through a crowdfunding campaign, which means I originally ordered the book back in October 2017. One of the things I love about crowdfunding is that it is not just about buying a book, it’s also about the excitement of seeing it come together. I’ve loved watching the hard work Kate put into writing and promoting this book.

I was also lucky enough to be one of the book’s beta-readers (which is how I can be so confident about promoting the book when the e-book only dropped in a few days ago). I read it back in February, and it’s been interesting how much it resonates with the current state of the world.

Kate’s also had enthusiastic responses from people like Emma Jane Unsworth (“Purple People is JOYOUS… warm, witty, wildly imaginative and utterly original”) and David Quantick (“that rare thing, a warm-hearted satire… it has teeth AND a heart.”).

The best thing about Purple People is that it is original. I read a lot of dystopian fiction over the years and have become a little jaded with the genre. The deceptive lightness of this book is refreshing. It’s now available on amazon (just £3.99 on kindle) and you should give it a try.

I love putting friend’s books on my shelves. Here’s Kate’s book in its new home, between Burroughs and Bronte, with Borges, Brautigan and Richard Blandford just near by.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

If Emily St John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel is not my favourite book of 2020 I will be surprised. I’ll also be delighted, because books this good are not as common as I’d like. Mandel’s previous novel, Station Eleven, is a wonderful story about the survivors of a flu pandemic. This latest one was described in a Guardian review as being about “the global financial crisis as a ghost story“. I couldn’t resist the idea of such a book that included finance, shipping and luxury hotels.

The book tells the story of a number of characters whose lives are entangled. The sweep of lives and time reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad. The writing is fantastic, building empathy for the characters as well as including some great epigrams (“luxury is a weakness” or “there’s a difference between being intelligent and knowing what to do with your life”).

Much of the book follows a young woman called Vincent through a life of sudden luxury. She finds this a strange fantasyland, saying to one character “I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country“.

Vincent is fully aware of how her life has changed, from working in a bar to being rich. “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life

Throughout the book there is a sense of growing doom. Early in the book, one character asks another “Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilization collapses just so that something will happen?” One character and his partner are financially ruined, and he grapples with “an unspoken understanding: neither of them would leave this continent again”.

None of which captures how strange this book is. The incursions of weirdness in the the characters’ lives is subtle, and the real elements feel almost as haunting; like that feeling you get walking through quiet hotels: “he didn’t feel alone in all this space, all of these empty corridors and rooms. It was as though the hotel were haunted, but in the most benign sense: the rooms still held an air of presence, a sense of occupation, as if at any moment the boat might pull in with new guests and Raphael might walk out of his office complaining about the latest staffing problem.

This haunting also comes through in the discussions of shipping and the infrastructure that holds the world together; magically keeping the shelves stocked, notably only when it fails. “there are tens of thousands of ships at sea at any given moment and he liked to imagine each one as a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans, flowing through the narrow channels of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Strait of Gibraltar, around the edges of continents and out into the oceans, an unceasing movement that drove countries, a secret world that he loved so much”.

The Glass Hotel contains links to Station Eleven, one being that the same flu virus is present in both books, but the outbreak is only mentioned briefly as being under control in the Glass Hotel. And while The Glass Hotel has little overt connection to the current moment, it felt like the perfect book for thr current time. As Mandel said in an interview at the University of Florida, “You can make an argument that the world’s become more bleak, but I feel like we always think we’re living at the end of the world. When have we ever felt like it wasn’t going to be catastrophic?

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West was a book-club choice, which I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. It tells the story of two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class. Nadia wears conservative dress “so men don’t fuck with me”, but enjoys riding a motorbike and smoking dope.

They live in an un-named city and, just after they get together, civil war breaks out. Their lives become incredibly dangerous. They are under curfew and become dependent upon technology: “without their mobile phones and access to the internet there was no ready way for them to re-establish contact

The book was disturbing, making me think about the ties that bind us together. I became acutely aware that, should the Internet or phone system fail, I would have no means of getting news about my family, who live 200 miles away. The book is an incredibly empathic portrayal of displacement and the refugee experience (as Hamid writes, “we are all migrants through time”).

Deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the night-time curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone

I was also surprised at a fantastic turn the book takes. One of the great things about book clubs is reading a book you know nothing about. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected it to be.

I finished the book at the start of March, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived and overturned my world. I’m not saying that the experieces of Saeed and Nadia are comparable to my current experience, but I’ve been reminded how fragile daily life actually is, and how it can be overturned.

A recent article by Oliver Burkeman, “Focus on the things you can control” referred to a 1939 sermon by CS Lewis:

It wasn’t the case, he pointed out, that the outbreak of war had rendered human life suddenly fragile; rather, it was that people were suddenly realising it always had been. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis said. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”

Moments from Hamid’s book keep coming back to me:

when the government instituted a policy that no one person could buy more than a certain amount per day, Nadia, like many others, was both panicked and relieved.

Back when I read this book, such an experience was foreign to me. I’d yet to experience the anxiety of empty supermarket shelves. This book was terrifying and unsettling, and I’m shocked at how quickly my connections with the characters have deepened.

the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

Withdrawn Traces

My friend Kate recently lent me her copy of Withdrawn Traces by Leon Noakes and Sara Hawys Roberts. The book is a biography of Richey Edwards aka Richey Manic. It also raises a lot of questions about his disappearance (not least ‘Can you ask too many rhetorical questions?’)

The book quotes from Edward’s archives, which is an incredible experience. I was obsessed with the Manic’s third album, The Holy Bible, during 1994/5. The record is an uncompromising and brutally intellectual record, released as Edwards’ mental health reached crisis point.

At the time, Edwards’ decline was documented by the music press, his scars displayed in powerful black and white photos, his extreme statements cast as pull quotes. The ongoing illness played into rock and roll mythology, which fed the self-destruction of both Richey Manic and some of his fans (as Edwards in turn had taken Kurt Cobain as an influence).

Reading excerpts from his diaries strips away the glamour. The story becomes sadder and the intellectual structures are much less rigorous than they appeared when edited and honed in interviews. Rather than describing the self-sacrifice of a rock star, Withdrawn Traces depicts the sad decline of a human being.

One quote from the book stood out, which originally appeared in the Melody Maker in December 1994:

When you’re in the places I’ve been in, the first place especially, it’s just any job, any occupation. Housewife, bricklayer, plumber, somebody who works for South Wales Electricity Board, whatever. It doesn’t pick or choose people who pick up a pen… It’s very romantic to think ‘I’m a tortured writer’, but mental institutions are not full of people in bands.

The mythic nature of rock and roll, with it’s doomed genius archetypes doesn’t translate into real life – even for the people enacting those archetypes. The book was heartbreaking, but a powerful insight into much of what was happening behind the scenes in 1994/5.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I first learned about Jenny Offill’s novel Weather through an interesting entry on Justin’s weeknotes, which referred to Offill’s writing process, “covering poster boards with pasted fragments of her work in-progress“. This was followed by a stunning New York Times interview.

Weather is a short novel composed of fragments. The writing is incredibly careful,  and the meaning is incredibly dense. Each word carries a great weight – this is a book that should be read slowly. The plot, according to the NYT’s description, “does not build so much as flurry“. The main character Lizzie’s domestic life is played against the concerns and terrors of climate change; which is an underwhelming description of such a funny and exciting novel.

Amitav Ghosh has argued that we need to find new forms of literature capable of dealing with climate change, and Offill does a good job of evoking climate change as what Timothy Morton referred to as a ‘hyperobject.’ The danger of such novels is that they can do little more than depress the reader with the fate lying in store for the world (although Offill places a URL at the end of the text, www.obligatorynoteofhope.com/). Apparently, Offill’s first ideas for the novel were “as a survival manual for her daughter, cramming it with information about every possible catastrophe, with tear-out sheets on practical tips. Some of these remain” (NYT)

The big attraction of the book for me was the form. I love novels with notes and references at the back, novels which blur the lines between fiction and  non-fiction. I love texts made of fragments and bought the hardback because I wanted to engage with the physicality of the text, rather read it on my kindle where the layout is more mutable. As media loses heft in the world, text as a physical object becomes even more important and compelling (and the novel is aware of this through Lizzie’s interactions with websites, minecraft and podcasts).

Some more quotes from the New York Times Interview:

The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling.

And another, on Offill’s process, and how important physical text is for her work:

The key to her proc­ess, she told me, is time — hence the agonizing slowness of the writing. Only by waiting and continuing to stare at and sift these fragments does it become clear which ought to remain. So many, she said, lose their “radiance”; they reveal themselves to be merely clever.