holiday reading suggestions from the brits
I’m not a natural holidaymaker. I find beaches sweltering and boring unless they are swept with rain. But in recent years I’ve begun to come round, mainly because my daughter loves rock pools and sand, an appetite nurtured quite brilliantly by her mother. The world from Bude to St Ives is an action painting of beautiful light, mad water, inordinate weather, and fine sensations. They live in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse — at one or two fictive removes — in much the same way they do in life. Woolf was a child when she first saw Godrevy lighthouse in St Ives bay, and the memory came back to her as a vision. She remembered for the rest of her life the taste of salt on the lips and the holiday delirium, a kind of English symbolism growing out of that place and that time and that unusual mind. Every summer now there are a few days when I see my little girl shimmer at the edge of the surf with bucket and spade. She is fearless. The perfect summer destination is an ideal part of themind as well as an ideal part of the world, in this case Britain’s craggiest shore, a place that is covered in barnacles and dreams.
The book about "place" to which I return, as often as I venture along the banks of the Medway or roll up my trousers for a paddle in Ramsgate, is All the Devils Are Here (Granta, 2002) by David Seabrook. This is no comfortable travelogue, but a motormouth elegy, an Ancient Mariner rant, as compulsive, deranged and inspirational as the topography it describes. Cultural memory for Seabrook is a stand-up routine, a hysterical conspiracy. The man is a rottweiler for truth. He knows and loves the thing he describes: the secret history of TS Eliot on Margate sands, drunken carry-on orgies in Deal, John Buchan counting the steps in Broadstairs, Nazi bankers, patricidal artists. And the microclimate of Chatham, where Dickensian spectres cohabit with youthful prostitutes who "pound locked cars like gibbons at Longleat".
Seabrook, hustling through the arcades, brushing against hedges, diving into charity shops, never lets up. He gives his readers an ear-bashing they won’t forget. I swear that book talks in my sleep. Off-message, downriver Kent is rescued, definitively, from the heritage pirates, the development-pitch scammers, the theme-park cowboys. Here is documentation as rich and strange as the fictions of Nicola Barker (who has done her bit for the same territory). When Seabrook died, earlier this year, it was a horribly premature loss: now this mysterious author is fated to become part of the zone he described to such effect; an anecdote, a rumour, a legend.
A powerful first novel about the history and the landscape of the north-east coast of Scotland, the Moray coast, came out earlier this year — The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom (Duckworth). It catches something about the locality I’ve not read in any other writer since Jessie Kesson; it conjours landscape by strength of voice, and its take on history is as bracing and cleansing as the local weather.
The obvious holiday book is Antony Beevor’s tremendous D-Day (Viking), to be read somewhere on the south coast of England looking across to France while you plan a further holiday in Normandy. Or you could try HG Wells detailing the destruction of the south-western suburbs of London and the attack on London itself as the population flees Martian invaders, in The War of the Worlds. He wrote it in 1897, and it is still so frightening it becomes exhilarating.
Michael Moorcock’s novel King of the City (Scribner, 2000) is a functioning barometer of London’s seismic moral shifts since the Thatcher years. While his Mother London is justly celebrated, King of the City presented us with a global metropolis – a seething, ethically complex London, slyly skewed by Moorcock’s humanity, his playful and exhilarating inventiveness, delightfully flip-switching from invention to reality. Dennis Dover is more than just a contemporary paparazzo, with his finger on both the shutter and the faltering pulse of our times. Dover becomes a mirror of our perplexity. The personal iconography of Moorcock’s fictional world has become so rich, each work he produces forms part of a complex echo chamber, singing beautifully into both the past and future of his own mythologies; just as London itself is the great, stuttering energy source, simultaneously contemporary and Dickensian, wired through invisible counter cultures. This novel is even more relevant a decade on, where the kings of the city — in all their sly disguises — have bust the banks; where political sell-out and naked corruption have become acceptable, where media giants and dodgy billionaires kick away at the flaky keel of democracy. King of the City questions how happy these decades of merciless consumerism have left us and probes the constructs of authenticity, as to what real London actually is — from the old hippies of Ladbroke Grove to the generation who now tell us how hard they’ve worked to get on Big Brother. Glorious.
Cynan Jones’s lovely, poignant short novel The Long Dry (Parthian Books) is set in coastal west Wales. The action is confined to a single day near the end of parched summer, in which a calving cow wanders off from its herd and must be tracked down by its farmer, Gareth. This makes the book sound rather mundane, but there is nothing mundane about it. Its focus is on the interior lives of its characters — Gareth himself, his troubled wife Kate, his teenage son, his young daughter, Emmy — and its themes are weighty ones: loss, decay, ambition and disappointment, the pull of the land and the hardness of living on it. This is not a novel that encourages tourism. Gareth has the farmer’s disdain both for visitors, who think the country is a "park", and for incomers, who mispronounce Welsh words and let their dogs run wild in the fields. But Jones’s sense of place is acute, and his passion for the landscape — for its colours, its creatures, its textures, its scents — is absolutely magnetic. The book is an especially resonant one for me: though set in Ceredigion it conjures up the exact feel of my home county, neighbouring Pembrokeshire, with its dusty summer lanes, its flower-crowded hedges, its sweeping vistas of pasture and ploughland — "and the sea before you," as Jones puts it, "silk and blue above a line of thick gorse, bursting into yellow".
Leave a comment
No comments yet.